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Back Stories | My Album Reviews From June 4, 1999

Rewinding classic albums by Pavement, Ministry, Smash Mouth and more.

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Two decades ago, new albums from Pavement, Def Leppard, Ministry 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):


Pavement
Terror Twilight

Call it Enchanted, But Less Slanted. This fifth album in a decade (not counting collections) finds the ultimate alt-everything outfit Pavement still quirky after all these years. As usual, Terror Twilight’s 11 introspective indie-rock daydreams meander through genres, keys and tempi like a college kid surfing MP3 files. And Stephen Malkmus’ thoughtfully abstract lyrics (“There’s blood in the butter, the kitchens are closed”) and detached vocals are idiosyncratic as ever. But while Pavement continue to march to their own crooked beat, this time they’ve all learned the same steps — unlike their raggedly glorious earlier work, everything here is in tune, in key and in time. Heck, one song, The Hexx, has a guitar solo that wouldn’t be out of place on Sticky Fingers. Still, while they’ve brightened the corners a bit, Terror Twilight still has the power to make us say wowee zowee.


Def Leppard
Euphoria

“I’m always around, wired for sound, shakin’ it for all it’s worth,” boasts Joe Elliott on Back In Your Face, and he ain’t whistlin’ Dixie, bub. Def Leppard’s ninth outing finds the lads rejuvenated — or is that Adrenalized? — and picking up where classic ’80s discs like Hysteria and Pyromania left off, down to the chrome-plated, Morse-code guitar riffs, multi-tracked vocals and stadium-sized drum beats. Whether this surprisingly satisfying collection of riff rockers and bombastic power ballads will be viewed as retro-cool or rewarmed tripe is anybody’s guess. I just know it lives up to its title more often than you’d expect.


Ministry
Dark Side Of The Spoon

Ministry mouthpiece Al Jourgensen says this latest disc — the first since 1996’s dour Filth Pig — is a “fun” album. Rest assured your definition of fun isn’t the same as Al’s. Suffice to say Ministry haven’t gone soft: Spoon is a 45-minute eruption of the usual aggro-industrial metal sludge we’ve come to know and love from Al and partner Paul Barker. Even so, there’s no getting around the fact that Jourgensen — the original Weird Al — has lightened up to the point where he tosses banjo and sax into the deadly Nursing Home and chants “I’m OK, you’re OK,” amid the blues-rock grind of recovery satire Step. Not exactly a barrel of monkeys, but more fun than a whack in the head with a ball peen — or sitting through Filth Pig again.


Jamiroquai
Synkronized

“You know this boogie is for real,” are the first words out of singer Jay Kay’s mouth here, and truer words were never spoken. With more bounce to the ounce than ever before, Jamiroquai distills every ’70s dance hit into one giant, booty-shaking funkathon on Synkronized. Jay and co. get off on the good foot with Canned Heat, a disco thumper that hoists Stevie Wonder and Walter Rossi straight out of Studio 54 and flies them to Boogie Wonderland. And the hits just keep on comin’, from the Earth, Wind & Fire-powered Planet Home to the Family Stone jam Black Capricorn Day, the Barry White boudoir soul of Butterfly and the blaxploitation groove Soul Education. Is any of it original? Hell, no. But it’s a stone gas, baby.


Smash Mouth
Astro Lounge

What’s surprising about this sophomore CD from the Walking On The Sun boys isn’t how often they try to duplicate that novelty hit’s retro-surf-a-go-go vibe — it’s how often they don’t. Aside from a couple of obvious Xeroxes that likely appeased the suits, most of this disc throws away the tiki-torch shtik in favour of a laid-back, lilting new-wavey vibe like that of gargantuan first single All Star. Meanwhile, other tracks flirt with spry power pop, Elvis Costello-ish balladry and the jazzy, space-age groove suggested by the title. And while it does seem kind of unfocused at times — you get the sense the boys are unsure of what to do next — you have to give them props for not just trying to walk in Sun’s footsteps.


Geri Halliwell
Schizophonic

Just because she used to be Ginger Spice, don’t presume Geri Halliwell will do anything gingerly on her solo debut Schizophonic. As you’d expect from Ginger, she leaps first and asks questions later, and as you’d expect from the title, this disc has multiple musical personalities. Swinging ’60s grooves, gospel choirs, Asian hip-pop, noirish jazz, flamenco — you name it, Geri tackles it all here with a wink, a smile and a spirit of playful abandon. And while the results are mixed — even Geri admits she isn’t the greatest singer, and some of these tunes are skimpier than her old Union Jack outfit — Schizophonic is still spicier than anything her former band ever came up with.


Black Mask
Various Artists

Jet Li is Hong Kong’s latest action-hero export — the kind of guy who walks and talks softly, but carries a big can of whupass. And while the rap artists on the soundtrack to the Jet-propelled action flick Black Mask may not be as quiet as Li, they’re certainly just as capable of a devastating beat-down. Wielding thumping rhythms like body blows and tossing off whirling rhymes like nunchuks, this largely unknown crew — Defari, Noreaga and Everlast are the biggest names here — execute flawless gangsta-rap maneuvers that will floor the competition. Move over, Wu-Tang Clan — there are some new black belts in the house.


Pete Seeger
Headlines & Footnotes: A Collection Of Topical Songs

Public Enemy’s Chuck D has famously referred to rap music as “the CNN of the ghetto.” Well, duh, D. That’s nothing new. Sure, the beat has changed, but it’s no different than it was 60 years ago when folk music was the tribal drum of the underclass, chronicling events, analysing issues and sticking it to da man. In his 60-year career, banjo-folk legend Pete Seeger has recorded plenty of topical tunes — two dozen or so of which are gathered here. Some deal with industrial advancement (Peg And Awl), others with world events (The Titanic, Times A-Getting Hard) and still others with the lighter side of life (English is Cuh-Ray-Zee). But they all share one trait — they’re fanfares for the common man. Back to you, Chuck.


Gob
How Far Shallow Takes You

So far, it seems How Far Shallow Takes You hasn’t done too badly for Vancouver skate-punk foursome Gob: This third CD, originally released on their own Landspeed label, broke some speed records of its own in being picked up for major-label distribution. And that ain’t all that’s fast around here — these 17 tracks still sprint to the finish line in under 35 minutes. We’re talking lickety-split licks, rapid Ramones riffs, metallic guitars and polka-punk drumming, all crammed into two-minute explosions of anthemic punk that would make Offspring or Bad Religion proud. Shallow could take these boys a long way.


VNV Nation
Praise The Fallen

For those who find KMFDM too cuddly and giddy, there’s VNV Nation, an orchestral-electronic duo who claim that “VNV is not a band, it is an expression of philosophy, art, politics, music, symbolism, all elemental in its voice.” Uh, sure, whatever. Not surprisingly, the music here is as pretentious as the bio: Germanic lock-step disco, crypto-fascist songs titled Ascension, Honour and Chosen, grandly sweeping musical epics filled with swelling strings and creepy soundtrack arpeggios. Turns out they’re right; VNV is not a band; at least not a good one.


Texas
The Hush

Texas is about the only musical mecca these overhyped Scottish media darlings don’t visit on this tepid disc. Instead, these blue-eyed soul-popsters travel to Minneapolis to ape Prince’s booty-knocking soul, swing by Memphis to swipe a little of the Rev. Al Green’s heavenly style and then settle down in Motown, where they spend most of the album copping Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross’s sweet sounds. People wonder why Texas’s albums don’t do as well in America as in the U.K. Well, for the same reason McSushi wouldn’t sell in Japan — the originators already do it better themselves.


Sonny Rhodes
Blue Diamond

The title is a triple play on words. First, you figure that blue diamond is the one stuck in the centre of the ’50s-movie-star turbans Texas singer-guitarist Sonny Rhodes favours along with tangerine pants, red suits and patent leather shoes. (Oh yes, the man has style.) Then you notice that it’s actually one of the tracks on this album full of rollicking bar room blues laced with Rhodes’ gruff yet supple vocals and sharp lap-steel slide work. Finally, though, after you hear this disciple of Johnny Copeland storm his way through smokers like Blues Is My Religion and folkier numbers like Back Where You Come From, you understand the Blue Diamond is Rhodes himself, presented here in a setting that shows him off perfectly.


Freestylers
We Rock Hard

Do Freestylers rock? Well,duh. Make no mistake, though; this U.K. dance-floor collective — 10 members including musicians, deejays, break dancers and so on — is a long way from, say, Metallica. But they’ll have you banging your head, tapping your foot and shaking your booty within seconds of sampling the relentless, beat-crazy electro-groove frenzy of the 70-minute dance party that is their debut CD. Living up to their name as well, the ’Stylers pitch everyone from PE to the JBs into a funky stew of canyon-wide grooves, hard-driving hip-hop, dancehall reggae and breakbeats that teach the old school a few new tricks. It’s elastic, it’s boombastic, it’s totally fantastic — and did I mention it rocks?


JT Money
Pimpin’ On Wax

With gangsta rap on the wane, it would seem hip-hop playa wannabes have adopted a new role model — pimps. Atlanta, Ga.’s Jeffrey (JT Money) Thompkins is just the latest rapper who seems to have based his act on old Iceberg Slim novels and Melvin Van Peebles movies. Set against a steady-rolling Blaxploitation soundtrack and whacked-out Timbaland rhythms, JT keeps his mind on his money and his money on his mind, spinning his mack daddy tales of Ho Problems and Pimp Matrimony in a bark that could complete with DMX or Busta Rhymes. When Money talks, people should listen.


Eddie Money
Ready Eddie

Been wondering whatever happened to Eddie Money? Yeah, me neither. But somebody must have been: Mr. Two Tickets To Paradise evidently got somebody to finance One More Trip To The Recording Studio. And the result is Ready Eddie, his first album in who-knows-how-long. Although, to be honest, it pretty much sounds like any of his old records — Eddie’s sandpaper rasp is as scruffy as ever, and his roster of ’70s-style air-guitar rockers and Bic-lighter ballads is as slick as ever, thanks to some songwriting contributions from folks like Frankie (Eye Of The Tiger) Sullivan and Jake (I Love Rock ’N’ Roll) Hooker. Coming soon to a classic rock festival near you.


Chronic 2000
Various Artists

Now that label head Marion (Suge) Knight is behind bars and star rappers like Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre have fled the sinking ship, it would seem Death Row’s days are numbered. Apparently to stave off execution — and, presumably, pay for his lawyers and a few cartons of jailhouse smokes — Knight has cobbled together this two-CD set of leftovers, odds ’n’ ends and filler from the label’s stable. Two worthwhile unreleased Tupac tracks are the sole attraction here; the rest is a long-winded series of B-grade, Snoop-dissing rhymes from second-string artists and a few stars (E-40, Ant Banks, K-Ci) who must have owed Knight a favour. Just one question, Suge: Should we pay cash or just send you a pack of Camels?


Expansion Union
World Wide Funk

It’s a small world after all — at least, if NYC electronica dance-duo Expansion Union’s definition of world-wide is anything to go by. Their debut full-length has plenty of funk, to be sure. Trouble is, it’s nearly all from the same place: the Eurotrash heap. Like Giorgio Moroder, Axel F and Falco, EU specializes in that midtempo electro-boogie that locks into a trance-like groove, plops down a cheesy melody line and then rides the funk with little variation till the tape runs out. Some out-there scratching and heavy-metal guitar licks (one of EU’s members used to be a rocker) help break up the monotony slightly, but otherwise, Expansion Union could stand to expand their own horizons a touch.


Chet Atkins & Doc Watson
Reflections

These two pioneers of American music — country picking legend Chet Atkins and bluegrass giant Doc Watson — recorded this album on the fly some 20 years ago after a single day of rehearsal. You’d never know it from this long-overdue CD rerelease of this long-lost treasure; Chet and Doc are so relaxed and together you’d swear they’ve spent years sittin’ out on the back porch, takin’ a nip ev’ry now and then while they pick out classics like Dill Pickle Rag and Old Joe Clark, launch into impromptu tributes to Lester Flatt and improvise silly originals like Me And Chet Made A Record. But that’s why these guys are the legends they are; because they make it look as easy as falling off a log.