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Back Stories | My Album Reviews From June 18, 1999

Rewinding some classic discs from Chemical Brothers, Rick Springfield & more.

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Two decades ago, new albums from Chemical Brothers, Rick Springfield 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):


The Chemical Brothers
Surrender

Back with another one of those block rockin’ beats? Well, not exactly.

Chemical Brothers Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons are indeed back, but unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on your taste in electronica — the spacious, coolly introspective Surrender isn’t the big-beat dance-floor opus 1997’s Dig Your Own Hole was. Perhaps it’s because they exorcised their DJ demons on last year’s dance-mix disc Brothers Gonna Work It Out. Or maybe they’re trying to stay ahead of the techno curve. Whatever it is, on Surrender, Ed’s all right and Tom’s all right. They just seem a little weird.

And they don’t give themselves away. At least, not to the same sort of over-the-top boogie fever that characterized Dig Your Own Hole. Here, the grooves are a little sparer, the beats are a little slower, the samples are fewer and farther between and the thumping bass drums have been mixed to the back of the tracks.

Don’t misunderstand: Tom and Ed haven’t turned the beat completely around. Surrender is still a techno album at heart, as the drum ’n’ bass of single Hey Boy Hey Girl attests. Most of the hour-long album’s songs even flow seamlessly together into a giant megamix. And like Hole, Surrender has a slate of guest spots from the cream of British music. Bernard Sumner of Joy Division and New Order croons the moody Out Of Control, OasisNoel Gallagher voices the grand, sweeping, Britpop (natch) of Let Forever Be, and Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval takes over for Beth Orton on the reverb-drenched, Cowboy Junkies-style chillout Asleep From Day.

And while there’s no obvious monster hit — no instantly addictive Block Rockin’ Beats, no Setting Sun — that’s not to say Surrender is without great songs. In fact, that’s the biggest difference here: most of the tracks, even the instrumentals, feel like actual songs with verses, choruses, melodies and movements, instead of dance mixes based on Fat Boy Slim-style repetition and cartoon effects. This time out, the brothers take aim at your head and heart instead of just your body and booty.

In other words, these beats may not rock the block — but they may very well knock your block off.


Can
Box

Listening to ’60s German avant-rock pioneers Can makes you realize just how much the music biz has changed in three decades. In 1999, no major label in its right mind would release an album of 16-minute-long art-rock freakouts. Thank heavens, then, for the lunatics at New York’s Mute Records, the North American distributors of the new 30th-anniversary Can set, Box. The two music CDs compile some wicked unreleased live tracks from the ’70s — even while churning out throbbing aural sculptures, free-flowing flights of fancy, the occasional creative cacophony and yes, single songs longer than some other artists’ albums, Can always rocked. As further proof, you get a video with archival live footage and a bulky trilingual book. It’s all so crazy it just might work.


Rick Springfield
Karma

Old Rick Springfield used to wish that he had Jessie’s Girl; now he seems to wish he had Bryan Adams’ career. And with the help of Bryan’s old songwriting partner Jim Vallance, he’s out to get it on Karma, his first album in 10 years. Oddly enough, the 13-track disc sounds like it might have been recorded 10 years ago, when Adams’ brand of sandy-voiced, working-class guitar rock was still selling. But these days, it ain’t and this won’t. And the few loops and samples Ricks sprinkles here and there aren’t fooling anybody — he sounds about as hip as Mel Torme covering Donovan. Better watch out, Rick — if there is karma, you’ll spend your next life in a Bryan Adams tribute band.


Flux A.D.
Passive Aggressive

The indie-rock scene is like a giant mine loaded with fool’s gold, semi-precious stones and diamonds in the rough — but every now and then, out of nowhere pops a pure, uncut gem. Wondrous Ontario electro-rock quintet Flux A.D. are as flawless a jewel as you’ll find anywhere. In fact, it’s almost too bad for them they’re Canadian; if this sparkling piece of dreamy pop art came out in the U.K., these kids would be drinking with Oasis on Top Of The Pops by now. They’ve got the phonogenic, photogenic singer in the form of sweet-sounding Julie MacDonald; the sure-fire hit single in the lusciously venomous Twisted Little Lies; and a solid album of intelligent, hooky tunes — think trip-hoppy Veruca Salt or Juliana Hatfield — to back it up. In other words, they’ve got it all.


The Wrockers
Stranger Than Fiction

The record label that released this was named DQYDJ, which of course stands for Don’t Quit Your Day Job. It’s sound advice for the 32 authors — including best-sellers like Stephen King, Carl Hiassen, Dave Barry, Amy Tan and even Norman Mailer — who put down their pens and try to carry a tune on this bizarre two-CD fund-raiser. And we do mean bizarre; this is a freak show of misguided intentions, missed-by-a-mile notes and downright weirdness — like Mailer rumbling and grumbling his way through his own Alimony Blues or King turning Stand By Me into a bigger horrorshow than any of his novels. Like William Shatner’s infamous albums, this is so bad it’s incredible. A good gag gift for the reader in your family.


Julie Doiron
Will You Still Love Me?

Former Eric’s Trip bassist Julie Doiron takes a trip to her own heart of darkness on this introspective five-song EP. And she’s travelling coach; these troubled tales of melancholia and longing are classic bedroom-rock recordings with bare-bones arrangements — a solitary guitar, the occasional vibe and harmony vocal — that only serve to highlight the raw nerve endings of the tunes. For her part, Doiron uses her achingly plaintive and fragile voice to open herself up like a vein and bleed all over us. After all, we all need someone we can bleed on …


Krispy
From The Country

Krispy? More like Smoothie. This U.K. hip-hop duo bypasses crunch and goes for a mellow flow and a dubby five on just its second full-length CD in 10 years. And while some fat, loping beats, reggae riddims and lyrical prowess put the occasional rude-boy edge on these ruffneck-tinged raps, MC Microphone Don says it all when he intones: “I’m taking it easy.”


Kreators
No Contest

“To all you gangsta rappers, we’re like Elliott Ness,” boasts Boston hip-hop quartet Kreators on their debut album No Contest. They’ve got a point — this fantastic four are definitely untouchable. And they’re back to rescue rap from the thugs and gang-bangers. Their secret weapon? The basics — just mad flow, kickin’ rhymes, solid, sinisterly soulful beats, two turntables and a microphone. No Puffy samples, no gangster glamourizations, no chopsocky shtik. And best of all, no skits; instead, Kreators separate their songs with advice on how to navigate the pitfalls of the rap music biz. Compared to today’s crop of sellout rappers, there is indeed No Contest.


Labradford
E Luxo So

If ambient music makes you think of blooping, bleeping synths, endlessly repeating samples and paranoid androids, Labradford’s fifth album E Luxo So will make you think again. Sure, their instrumentals have that haunted, lugubrious flow. And yes, they do have their share of tape loops and synthetic soul. But they also have plenty of human soul; E Luxo So also features a string section and dulcimers in addition to twangy guitars, lonely piano and bass. Meanwhile, the epic-length ebbing and flowing tape loops recall Fripp and Eno’s ’70s albums, while the scratchy, hissy bits sound like the grit scraped off a Portishead record. Think of it as trip without the hop.


The Dark Fantastic
The Dark Fantastic

Dark Fantastic mastermind Mark Pickerel was the original drummer in Washington’s Screaming Trees. But don’t expect to hear any of the flannel-clad grunge of his old gig on his debut solo outing. Instead, this disc leaves Seattle way behind and ventures out on a sightseeing tour of the pop landscape — some Gary Numan electro-pop straight from the U.K., a little folk-rock from Hotel California, some of Pink Floyd’s outer-space acid flotation, the occasional glimpse of ’60s Woodstock rock and even some drizzly Northwest ballads. By the time he finally arrives back home with a post-grunge rock riff or two, it’s been a trip well worth taking — dark and smooth, and yes, pretty fantastic.


Soil
Throttle Junkies

Far as I know, Rob Zombie has never covered Sweet Home Alabama — but if he did, it might sound a little like Chicago’s Soil. Like their recent EP El Chupacabra, this debut full-length is a goat-sucking hawg of pedal-to-the-metal, Southern-fried rawk, laced with a soaring twin-guitar attack, thunderous crunching riffs and Satanic James Hetfield vocals. Recorded by indie-rock god Steve Albini, TJ has no fancy trappings: No samples, no keyboards, no rap-rock riffs. Just six strings, five guys and one goal: world domination. This is what happens when the devil goes down to Georgia.


To Rococo Rot
The Amateur View

In a white room with black curtains live To Rococo Rot, a triad of palindrome-handled synth ticklers out of Germany. It’s the perfect setting for this experimental trio; like Aphex Twin and his orderly ambient excursions, TRR often prefer to keep their world clean and pristine — chilly, chattering synths sharing space with the lush isolation of sweet, swelling strings. But once they pull back the drape, a world of colour and emotion comes creeping in via sexy basslines and infectious rhythms. Warmth yet cool, soothing yet compelling, To Rococo Rot prove friends really are electric.


Thisway
Thisway

“Really nice … it’s really nice,” sings Thisway’s Brandon Wilde on his band’s debut CD — and he’s not just talking about the weather. Nice pretty much sums up this Yankee quartet’s disc of soft-centred pop and glistening alt-rock. Even when they do rock out, they seem nice about it. Not Barenaked Ladies nice, but maybe Hootie And The Blowfish nice — just loud enough not to wake the neighbours and ready to turn it back down at the first thump of a broomstick on the ceiling. Not that there’s anything wrong with being nice — it’s just that in rock ’n’ roll, there is such a thing as being too nice, you know?


Mayor McCA
Welcome To McCALand

If Beck had grown up obsessed with the British Invasion instead of Mississippi folk-blues, he’d have been Mayor McCA, a one-man band from Hamilton. The Mayor — or, as his mom calls him, Christian Anderson Smith — has the same sort of screwball vision and whimsical approach to music as that Hansen boy. He just has a different record collection, as you can tell from his second CD Welcome To McCALand. Where Beck would drop a rap lyric or a blues line, Smith tosses in a wry Ray Davies quip or a Beatles harmony. But make no mistake: he can still get crazy with the Cheez Whiz and throw down a freaky blues shouter, an oddball folk ditty or a love song for Queen Victoria. But the piece de weirdness here is Barfly — A Tragedy In 1/2 An Act, a multi-voiced mini-musical about bugs in love. Say what you will about the Mayor, he’s definitely master of his domain.


Seven Percent Solution
Gabriel’s Waltz

Most space-rock bands try to take you upward, outward and beyond the stars; Austin, Tex., quintet Seven Percent Solution seems more interesting in taking you on a 47-minute trip to your inner space. This meditative and introspective album is a quiet and contemplative affair — the echoing jingle-jangle of gently strummed guitars, the muted thud and ping of tastefully restrained drumming and the pensive brood of shoegazing lyrics such as “I’m so tired and soul-sick” carry us along gently on Gabriel’s Waltz, never prodding nor tugging yet somehow tantalizing us to keep pace till the music ends.


Bailter Space
Solar.3

If there ever was a band that should use dry ice in its show, it’s Bailter Space. In fact, I can’t even picture this New York-based space-noise outfit without imagining a giant swirl of smoky fog billowing out around them, acting as the perfect complement to their sweeping, psychedelic drones. Solar.3, their latest CD, is another murky, mood-swing epic, with guitars pulsing in waves like solar radiation, fuzz boxes and reverb units cranked up to 11 and robotic, Suicide-style vocals drifting in and out of a kaleidoscopic skronk that would have My Bloody Valentine tapping its toes.


Rap Essentials: The Rebirth
Various Artists
Rawkus Presents Soundbombing II
Various Artists

Since too many hip-hop albums these days have the shelf life of week-old cottage cheese, compilations are still your best bet for keeping up with new acts and catching up with old ones without busting a move on your wallet. This third instalment in the Rap Essentials series is a cross-border effort, alternating Canadian acts like Rascalz, Kardinal Offishall and Michie Mee with Yankee heavyweights like Xzibit, Wu Tang Clan, Outkast and Run-DMC. And while the title is a bit of a stretch — I doubt even some of these artists’ mothers would call these tracks essential — the breadth of the selections makes up for the hyperbole. Soundbombing II, meanwhile, definitely lives up to its own hype. Eminem, Mos Def, Bahamadia and plenty more (including my new favourite rap name: Thirstin Howl III) drop the boom with a series of explosive, high-energy mixes strung together with introductory tracks from The Beat Junkies. It’s truly the bomb.