Two decades ago, new albums from Captain Beefheart, Santana, Limp Bizkit 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):
Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band
Grow Fins: Rarities (1965 – 1982)
Safe As Milk / The Mirror Man Sessions
Years ago, a friend of mine bought a copy of Captain Beefheart’s legendary Trout Mask Replica album. A while later, he disdainfully gave it to me, saying, “I don’t know how you can listen to this guy. This isn’t music, it’s just noise. This is garbage.”
He was not alone. Although Rolling Stone once picked Trout Mask as No. 33 of the Best 100 Albums recorded between 1967 – ’87, Beefheart — a.k.a. Don Van Vliet — is about as far as you can get from classic rock. His bandmembers had names like Zoot Horn Rollo and The Mascara Snake. His songs had titles like My Head Is My Only House (Unless It Rains) and A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets To A Diamond. And his music — a honking, lurching, often atonal blend of greasy Delta blues and field hollers, ’60s garage rock and soaring Martian free-jazz sort of like Howling Wolf and Ornette Coleman fronting the Mothers Of Invention at their freakiest — definitely was and still is an acquired taste.
But you know what they say about acquired tastes. And about one man’s trash. And for those of us who would rush into our burning house to save that original copy of the Captain’s Clear Spot album before that family photo album, 1999 is a great year to be a Beefheart fan. Although he hasn’t recorded in years — Van Vliet abandoned music for painting in 1982 — the cupboards are far from bare. In the past month, not one, not two, but three Beefheart packages have surfaced, delivering new songs, new insight and a new appreciation for one of rock’s most original and eccentric visionaries.
Biggest and best by far is Grow Fins, a sprawling five-CD box set of unreleased tracks: Nearly four hours of long-lost rehearsal tapes, home recordings, live tracks, radio appearances and more. Intelligently organized and thoughtfully presented, Grow Fins chronicles nearly every phase of the Cap’n’s career: the desert-rat blues of the mid-’60s, the Dadaist cacophony and psychedelic poetry of the late ’60s and early ’70s, the post-punk energy of his final albums. And you get a nifty 100-page book, highlighted by a lengthy, frank oral history of the band by longtime percussionist John (Drumbo) French.
But Grow Fins’ true piece de resistance is 30 minutes of video footage on an enhanced CD — eight songs from four performances filmed between ’68 and ’73. Watching the band playing Electricity live on the beach at Cannes or smoking through When Big Joan Sets Up in a Detroit TV studio is worth every penny this’ll set you back.
Still, if you’re on a limited budget, there are alternatives. Like Safe As Milk and The Mirror Man Sessions, two of Beefheart’s earliest albums that were just rereleased on the newly revived Buddha label. Remastered from the original tapes and augmented with alternate takes and leftovers (all previously available, but what the hey), these platters of psychedelic blues will give you a good taste of Beefheart’s sun zoom spark — and likely whet your appetite for more of his beautiful noise.
Now that Latinos from Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez to Molotov and Café Tacuba are cashing in, it seems only fair for Carlos Santana to get a slice of the pie. After all, he pretty much singlehandedly pioneered the whole Latino rock thing 30 years ago. And he still does it just as well on Supernatural, his first studio album in five years. Aided by a roster including Rob Thomas, Dave Matthews, Everlast, Eagle-Eye Cherry, Lauryn Hill and Eric Clapton, Santana applies his unmistakable, ice-pick axe-work to alt-folky salsa, Beckish tropicalia and even flamenco-tinged hip-hop. And even if the who’s who cast does make Supernatural feel like a tribute disc at times, that’s OK. If anyone’s earned one, it’s Santana.
Along with ska-punk, swing and teeny-pop, there’s another trend I can’t wait to see the backside of — rap-metal. Hopefully, this sophomoric sophomore disc from these Florida-based Korn wannabes won’t do anything to forestall that inevitability. Like countless other bands trying to cash in on The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ recipe, Limp Bizkit has beats that rock the block, guitars that sound like they’re being played with Tony Iommi’s missing finger and vocals that don’t know whether to rap or rage — so they do a bit of both. Sure, ambitious singer Fred Durst is equally capable of pulling off an authentic metal screech and some white-boy rhyming. Now he just has to write a decent song. Or better yet, he could make it easier on everyone and just team up with Korn.
Mercedes Five & Dime
Rule No. 1: When a successful rock band starts talking about how much they’ve “matured as songwriters” and “evolved as musicians” on their new record, what they really mean is, “We’ve written a bunch of songs without hooks that don’t rock.” Case in point: Mercedes Five And Dime, Moist’s moody, soulful third outing. These 13 tracks all but abandon the crunching rock of Silver and Creature for introspective, acoustic guitar-based and electronica-tinged tunesmithery that seems designed to show Moist aren’t just pretty-boy popsters. Who knows, maybe it’ll work. But it’s also likely Moist’s next disc will follow Rule No. 2: After a successful rock band puts out a self-indulgent album that stiffs, they start talking about wanting to “get back to their roots,” which really means, “The record company refused to put out this album unless we wrote some songs with hooks that rock.”
The Beta Band
The Beta Band
Slackjaw rap and twisted folk. Hipster-doofus lyrics. Junk-shop instrumentation. Spacy post-pop arrangements. No wonder this inspired British quartet earned so many comparisons to Beck with their compilation disc The Three E.P.’s. This self-titled slice of mellow gold won’t change things, what with the B-boys’ penchant for silliness (like using Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse Of The Heart as the basis for a sweeping piano ballad). But its psychedelic swirls, ooo-weeing synths and mix-and-match musical mutations — nursery-rhyme folk, white-boy rap and rockabilly, all in the same song — may take the comparisons to the next level: Beck jamming with Pink Floyd.
It seems every time some critic pronounces rock dead, along comes another gang of long-haired, leather-panted guitar slingers to kick some life back into its rotting corpse. This time ’round, the pointy-toed snakeskin boots belong to rawk godz The Hellacopters. Naturally, since they play classic American riff rock, they come from Sweden. Where, it seems, they’ve been frozen since about 1973 — when Iggy & The Stooges, The MC5, KISS and the New York Dolls were duking it out for Greatest Band In The Universe. Rather than play favourites, on Grande Rock, their third CD, the ’Copters cook ’em all up together into a brain-melting speedball of knuckle-tattooed, raw-powered mayhem, kicking out the jams on tracks like Welcome To Hell, Paul Stanley and The Devil Stole The Beat From the Lord. Hellacool.
Minor Chords & Major Themes
It’s been five years since Gigolo Aunts’ last album Flippin’ Out. Obviously, the boys have spent much of that downtime honing their songwriting, judging by the stellar results of their new followup Minor Chords & Major Themes. From the jangly opening chords of Cheap Trickish leadoff track C’Mon, C’Mon through the Babys-style pop-rock of The Big Lie to the gently strummed hidden instrumental that closes the album, Minor Chords is 48 minutes of expertly crafted pop melancholia reminiscent of Big Star or a less ironic Fountains Of Wayne (whose leader Adam Schlesinger, not coincidentally, guests here).
Have A Nice Day
Apparently, there are only two types of music in Sweden: Hammer of the gods rock or icy-cool pop. You already know where to find Roxette. Although it’s been five years since their last album and who knows how many since their big hit The Look, they still have The Sound on Have A Nice Day. Per Gessle and Marie Fredriksson only have two kinds of songs: Funky upbeat ones that sound sorta like The Look, and slower ballads that sound like It Used To Be Love. But hey, what were you expecting? Death metal?
Run Lola Run Soundtrack
Like the multiple storylines employed in this tale of a woman trying to raise 100,000 marks in 20 minutes to save her boyfriend’s life, this Euro-dance soundtrack contains more than one version of events. First, you can listen to the original score — eight electronica workouts packed with thumping dance-floor techno grooves, rubber-band synths and disaffected female vocals. Then, you can sample much of it over again in a different form: Half a dozen remixed tracks that didn’t make the film version. It’s two, two, two soundtracks in one.
Bruce Springsteen fans be warned: The big selling point for this soundtrack to John Sayles’ Alaskan drama is a new, previously unreleased Bruce track. But Lift Me Up is no Streets Of Philadelphia. Heck, it’s not even a 57 Channels And Nothing On. Like much of his recent work, it’s another brooding, minimalist ballad — but sung in falsetto. And it is about as appealing as that sounds. The rest of the disc can best be summed up in four words: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio sings. This is even less appealing than it sounds. Limbo feels more like purgatory.
Long before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, long before Rumours and Tusk, long before the soap-opera romances and cocaine roadies, Fleetwood Mac were an actual, honest-to-Muddy blues band. And a damn good one, to be precise. It’s this Fleetwood Mac that’s captured on the live disc Shrine ’69, the first in a series of live discs from the archives of veteran rock soundman Dinky Dawson. If this one is any sign, bring on the rest — this 10-song set finds the original Mac in full attack, with guitarists Peter Green and Danny Kirwan sliding deftly from chugging electric blues to spooky acoustic moaners, while drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie hold it all together like Krazy glue. These are the real Mac daddies.
It’s one thing to be a working ska band in New York or L.A. But making a living playing ska in the U.S. Midwest is likely a whole ’nother story. And one that likely takes more than some trendy duds, porkpie hats and a few Specials covers. Fortunately for horn-driven St. Louis sextet Skalars, what it takes is what they seem to have: Well-crafted tunes, soulful vocals (especially from alto player Jessica Butler), vice-tight chops from countless one-nighters, and the sort of varied set list — from sure-footed soul and R&B to Caribbean and Latino-tinged rhythms — that keeps the crowd dancing, the beer flowing and the tip jar full. Put in a fin for me.
Rare & Fatty
More than 20 years after their memorable Ska ’N’ B album, two-ton 2Tone terror Buster Bloodvessel and Bad Manners are still skanking and chugging along. Of course, good luck finding that album anywhere — like most of their stuff, it’s long out of print. So you can only imagine how rare their singles and B-sides are. Which is where this collection of obscure leftovers and just plain weird tracks comes in handy. Along with cuts from their very first studio session in 1979, you get oddities like a skanky These Boots Are Made For Walking, the Madness spoof Night Bus To Dalston and plenty of assorted tomfoolery. And while the sound isn’t always up to snuff, the quality of the tunes more than makes up for it. Lip up, fatty.
The Flashing Lights
Where The Change Is
Look, up on the stage! It’s an indie-rock band! It’s a pop quartet! It’s Super Friendz! Well, almost. Actually, it’s Super Friendz leader Matt Murphy’s new outfit — but super is still the word that best describes Flashing Lights’ debut. Although stellar, wondrous, joyful and just plain wow! also do justice to Murphy’s British Invasion-style amalgam of Ray Davies’ whine and wit, Beatle-pop harmonies and Who-style passion and abandon. In a world of soundalike modern rock careerists and manufactured teenybopper poster boys, we need all the heroes we can get; luckily, Flashing Lights have come to save the day.
Bigger & Blacker
Former SNL star and angry young standup Chris Rock has been likened to a ’90s Richard Pryor. And on his new, fittingly titled CD, Bigger And Blacker, he feeds that rep with plenty of raw, racy, often racial humour that gets in your face on topical issues ranging from homosexuality (“They can’t fight in the military and it’s against the law for them to get married … who’s got it better than that?”) to the Columbine killings (“They were upset that nobody liked them? There were six of them — I didn’t have six friends in high school!). Unfortunately, B&B isn’t all so focused: There are too many goofy skits and song parodies on which he comes off as another comic: Adam Sandler. Rock should stick to his Pryor convictions.
“Weird Al” Yankovic
Running With Scissors
Now that he’s ditched his trademark aviator specs and shaved his ’stache, it’s hard to recognize “Weird Al” Yankovic on the cover of his new disc. His music remains instantly identifiable, however; Running With Scissors is loaded with the usual sharp-witted takeoffs of chart-toppers like Offspring (Pretty Fly For A Rabbi) and Puff Daddy (It’s All About The Pentiums), along with a polka medley of everyone from Hanson to Manson. The real standout, though, is the Star Wars-themed The Saga Begins, set to American Pie (“My, my, this here Anakin guy … ”). Al’s own songs aren’t nearly as fun — when he doesn’t have a target, he seems to miss the mark — but on his parodies, The Force is clearly with him.