Two decades ago, new albums from Backstreet Boys, Snoop Dogg, Echo & The Bunnymen 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):
You want to know why music critics cringe at the thought of a new Backstreet Boys album? It’s not because we hate their perfectly coiffed mugs or their professionally crafted pop ditties: It’s because we know if we say anything bad about them, we’ll never hear the end of it. Honestly, the biggest challenge in reviewing a CD like Millennium isn’t providing insightful commentary or thoughtful analysis. The real trick is writing something that won’t provoke a mountain of venomous hate-mail from ticked-off teens. (You think I’m kidding? Ha! You should see my inbox.) Not surprisingly, most of the letters are pretty similar — they start with something like, “Dear Big Dumbhead,” and go on to tell us why I’m “a idjit” for not worshiping BSB. And interestingly enough, the same points come up again and again. Let’s tackle them one by one:
1) “Backstreet Boys are the greatest band in the world. And the cutest!!”
Hey, if you think BSB are the greatest, then they are — to you. And you’re certainly not alone in thinking that, if the frenzy over Millennium is any sign. As for their looks, well, judging by the cover photo and glossy booklet — which features two shots of each Boy and two group shots — there’s no denying they’re dreamy (although, to be honest, I’m not a fan of A.J.’s Cuban-pimp facial hair and Midnight Cowboy getup).
2) “Backstreet Boys are really talented. They write their own music and play their own instruments.”
Well, not really. At least, not on Millennium. According to the liner notes, only Kevin plays on the album — and only on one song. And only he and Brian have any songwriting credits; the rest of the Boys only get brownie-points recognition for things like “additional vocal arrangements.”
3) “Their music is really original.”
This is kind of like that NBC slogan — “If you missed it the first time, it’s new to you.” In general, Millennium has two kinds of songs: Funky hip-pop singles and soulful ballads. The big numbers like Larger Than Life and Don’t Want You Back are infectious, classic pop. They’re also cribbed pretty straight from ’80s funkateers Cameo — find a copy of Word Up if you don’t believe me. But it’s the ballads that rule; they outnumber rockers about two to one. All the songs are about one thing — you, girl. How much they want you, how much they love you, how much they need you. (Except for Brian’s song about his mom being his ultimate fan, which is just kind of creepy, if you ask me.)
4) “Backstreet Boys are nice, wholesome role models.”
Counterpoint: In Larger Than Life, when they sing, “Looking at the crowd and I see your body sway / Wishin’ I could thank you in a different way,” I’m pretty sure they’re not talking about an autograph.
5) “You just hate Backstreet Boys because you’re old, mean and ugly.”
Indeed I am old, mean and ugly. But I like plenty of pop acts — like, say, Ricky Martin. He’s the cutest!!
Atari Teenage Riot
60 Second Wipe Out
ATR mastermind Alec Empire strikes back with another sonic onslaught of his trademark Digital Hardcore — pummelling breakbeats, post-punk fury and anarchist politics all jackhammered together into a synthetic apocalypse that turns music into a contact sport and makes Marilyn Manson sound like Hanson. If it seems extreme, well, it’s supposed to be — for Empire, art is about confrontation, not relaxation. You say you want a revolution? So does he. And he’s going to keep screaming until he gets his way. Whether ATR’s sound amounts to revolution, evolution or devolution is anybody’s guess. But it’s as nasty as you want to be.
No Limit Top Dogg
The leader of the pack is back. With his ever-blunted outlook and narcoleptic delivery, Snoop Dogg has always been one of rap’s most distinctive voices. Unfortunately, since he parted ways with mentor Dr. Dre, his records haven’t had much bite. But with the new No Limit Top Dogg — his second disc in a year for gangsta-rap impresario Master P’s label — Snoop has his day once again. Much of the credit’s due to a mini-reunion with his old pack: Dre produces three of the low-riders here, and homies Nate Dogg and Warren G. howl along as Snoop sinks his teeth into rhymes about his favourite things: Weed, women and … well, more weed. Hey, you don’t expect an old dogg to learn new tricks.
A Place In The Sun
At first glance, Lit look like another bunch of SoCal rockers with all the trendy body adornments — tattoos, piercings, braided beards. But it turns out they also have something their Identikit peers don’t: Songwriting chops. These guys have clearly spent more time listening to Elvis Costello and Cheap Trick than to Korn and Tool, and it shows. With hummable riffs and shimmering harmonies, A Place in the Sun’s dozen tracks explode in your head like a cocktail of Pop-Rocks and Pepsi; meanwhile, singer A. Jay Popoff slyly twists lyrics like, “You make me complete” until they evolve into “You make me completely miserable.” OK, it isn’t Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds — but it’s still better than most of what’s out there.
Echo & The Bunnymen
What Are You Going To Do With Your Life?
These once-fiesty new wavers are officially ready for the old rockers home, judging by this lacklustre umpteenth album. Now down to just two members — singer Ian McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant — Echo & the Bunnymen seem to have lost their verve along with their lineup. Most of these tunes fall into two categories: Grandiose soul-pop and Neil Diamond-style wimp-rock, outfitted with more strings than your average insurance policy. Even two guest spots by Fun Lovin’ Criminals can’t bring this album out of its comatose groove. The only saving grace: At less than 40 minutes, this is practically an EP.
There’s a fine line between an inspired collage and a hodge-podge — and Mansun, Britain’s current band of the moment, brazenly tread both sides of that line on Six, their dreamy, dramatic sophomore CD. Combining everything from standard Britpop to classic rock to classical standards, Mansun build ambitious, multi-layered songscapes that switch tempo, key and genre faster than a malfunctioning jukebox. When it works, it’s brilliant — like the album’s three-song centrepiece, a suite that blends Bowie, XTC, Prince and Tchaikovsky into a psychedelic pop wonder. But when it doesn’t work — like much of the rest of the album — all you’re left with is another overhyped band that doesn’t know whether to be Smashing Pumpkins or Pink Floyd. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
Mixed Emotional Features
Cinematic is an adjective used far too often to describe electronica albums. Well, if your average Moby or µ-ziq disc is cinematic, this second CD from New York’s Mocean Worker — real name: Adam Dorn — is an IMAX double-bill in 3-D with six-channel Sensurround sound. The plot? It’s as wide-ranging as the title hints at. Sometimes it’s a dark, espionage flick set to driving, break-beat jazz. Then it segues into a grand, sweeping desert adventure backed by scratchy Tunisian funk. Finally, it becomes a steamy bayou mystery, propelled by a Cajun groove and a Neville Brothers sample. With a soundtrack like Mixed Emotional Features, you don’t need a movie.
A lot of ’90s DJs don’t deal in words — they’re all beats and breaks and bpms. If a tune even has a vocal, it’s likely to be one sampled line endlessly repeated, like Fat Boy Slim’s Rockafeller Skank. Thankfully, tripped-out U.K. duo Herbaliser know the pen can be mightier than the sampler. Hence, they choose their words carefully. Along with their blaxploitation funk, freaky stylus scratches and low-gravity lunar landscapes, they offer an array of voices, from the high-voltage live raps of Bahamadia, Dream Warriors and What What to sex-manual chapters and even straight-shooting jazz poetics. Just call them Verbaliser.
After umpteen years in punk, you have three choices: Move up, give up or grow up. New Jersey’s long-serving Bouncing Souls have taken Door No. 3, Monty. Hopeless Romantic, their fourth disc, is their most accessible of all, loaded with powerfully catchy melodies, punk singalongs and more hooks than a pirate’s meat locker. Not to mention the occasional glimpse of maturity and thoughtful nostalgia in the lyrics. Sure, deep down, the Souls are still punk goofs at heart — the kind of guys who write lines like “I’m a hopeless romantic / You’re just hopeless.” But even though they’re still living for Saturday night, they’re old enough to know you’ll pay for it the morning after.
If the band Faust ring any bells, I bet you have (or had) a ponytail, an airbrushed van and a stack of Can LPs in a milk-crate table below your lava lamp. If they don’t, well, now’s your chance to meet the ’70s Krautrock pioneers. Newly revived for the ’90s (hence the Italian title Ravvivando), Faust continue to forge their own twisted path. Aggressively freaky and surrealistic, Ravvivando is an hour of swirling cacophony and buzzing, noisy fever dreams outfitted with bulging, rumbling bass lines, jazz-rock backbeats, barely decipherable vocals and all the echo, reverb and insectile click-clacks of a Kafka nightmare. It’s safe to say Faust haven’t sold their souls for rock ’n’ roll.
Fear Of Fours
This trip-hoppy British techno duo is anything but meek; on the contrary, Lamb come on like a lion on this envelope-pushing sophomore CD. Taking the usual array of synths, samples and sound effects and augmenting them with live instruments — notably a wicked standup bass and swingin’ jazzbo drums — musical mastermind Andy Barlow paints simmering, smouldering canvasses of sound. For her part, spellbinding vocalist Lou Rhodes has just enough of Billie Holiday’s soul to turn these gloomy grooves into torch ballads for the new millennium.
Take My Mask And Breathe
Fast, loud rock bands are a dime a dozen. But truly heavy bands — the ones that deliver a subterranean thump that whacks your sternum like some demented medic using a sledgehammer to perform CPR — are harder to come by. Meet Dunnville, Ont.’s Chore, a truly heavy band. The secret ingredient? Two, count ’em, two bassists anchoring the quartet’s progressively aggressive metal, which ranges from minute-long, Tool-like thrashers to Rush-length wizard-rock epics. Breathe deep.
Syrup & Gasoline
Super-sweet and explosively powerful — that sums up Syrup & Gasoline, a collection of Canadian indie-rock, punk and power pop. On the sweet side you’ve got Winnipeg’s B’Ehl, whose Sorry For Being Such A Crappy Friend is a sugar fix of breezy acoustics and cotton-candy harmony. On the other end, there’s the rawk swagger of Montreal’s Tricky Woo or the Dead Boys glam-punk of Vancouver’s Spitfires. In the middle are Evie, whose Commotion is a collision of twisted pop, haunting harmonies and boom-bash drumming. Best of all: Thrush Hermit, who win the prize for coolest cover — a full seven-minute version of Budgie’s boogie classic Nude Disintegrating Parachutist Woman. Sweeeeet.
Dear Diary: Another awful day!! I have a new zit, I gained two more pounds and Brad, that cute guy in my English class, just laughed when I asked him to the dance. So tonight, I’m going to cuddle up with my stuffed animals, eat Twinkies, cry and listen to the new soundtrack to TV’s Felicity. It’s the perfect album for my mood — it’s got sad songs from Sarah McLachlan, Kate Bush, Heather Nova, Ivy and even some old lady named Aretha Franklin (I think she’s on here ’cause she was in that Pepsi commercial). The only thing Felicity needs in order to be, like, the coolest album ever is some cute boy bands. But then, that would just remind me of Brad. Sigh.
Lilith Fair Volumes 2 & 3
Since 1999 is supposedly Lilith Fair’s final year, these two discs might be as close as you’re likely to get to Sarah McLachlan’s female-powered festival for some time. And while that may be disappointing, these CDs aren’t; each collection is a crisply produced, diverse snapshot of the eclectic event. While Sarah smiles on both albums, Volume 2 skews toward newer, louder and funkier (Queen Latifah, Tracy Bonham and Holly McNarland), while Volume 3 goes aims for softer and folkier (Suzanne Vega, Indigo Girls and Chantal Kreviazuk). Either way, you can’t go wrong.
Evil Genius Orchestra
Star Wars: Cocktails In The Cantina
Now this is music for the space-age bachelor pad — all your favourite Star Wars tunes, cleverly (and lovingly) reworked into kitschy-cool cocktail numbers full of pinging bongos, theatrical theremins and vibrating vibes. Sure, it’s a goof; but on some tunes like the Main Title Theme and Cantina Band (which was already a lounge number anyway), it’s more fun than a barrel of Wookies. The only thing missing is Bill Murray’s Saturday Night Live lounge lizard wailing, “Staaaar Warrrs!” May the farce be with you.