Two decades ago, new albums from Los Lobos, Lyle Lovett 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):
Time is obviously one thing the guys in Los Lobos have on their side. Just look at them — after more than 25 years together, they’re still going strong, still as productive as ever.
In fact, they’ve become even more productive. In the past 12 months, there have already been four, count ’em four Lobos-related releases: The Los Super Seven album featuring Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo; the second disc from Hidalgo and Louis Perez’s Latin Playboys; a Rosas solo album; and a CD from Houndog, Hidalgo’s other side project. It can wear you out just trying to keep it all straight.
They, on the other hand, seem to find it all invigorating, judging by their new CD This Time — this year’s fifth and finest Lobos-linked title. In fact, it might be their finest in several years, one that effortlessly combines the roots-rock of their earlier works like … And A Time To Dance and How Will The Wolf Survive? with the experimental sounds of more recent outings like Kiko, Colossal Head and the Playboys’ Dose.
The key word there is effortlessly. From the opening title track, which uses a scratchy, trip-hoppy drum loop as the foundation for a sweet soulful ballad, to the closer Why We Wish, a mutant mariachi rocker that descends into a swirling, cross-fading denouement, every one of This Time’s 11 tracks — be it a moody studio construct with loops and samples, a bar room raveup with spaced-out organ or traditional Latin bolero jacked up with fuzz-tone guitars — seems unforced, playful and natural. Now that they can all get their creative ya-yas out in their individual side projects, it seems they can come together to make music just for the sheer enjoyment of it.
Not that This Time, despite its upbeat tracks and joyous vibe, is a frivolous affair. Mortality, aging, perdition and heartbreak all weigh heavily on the Lobos’ minds this time around. “Why do the days go by so fast? If only time was built to last,” they lament in the album’s opening seconds, only to conclude a few minutes later that we should just be “glad to still be breathing, glad to be alive.” In other words: Even if time is on your side, enjoy every second while you can.
Live In Texas
Why this disc took so long to gestate — these gigs were recorded four years ago — is anybody’s guess. But whatever; you won’t quibble about the vintage of the grapes once you sample the wine. And these 14 songs, which find Lyle Lovett backed by his Large Band of 17 assorted bandmembers, string and horn players and vocalists, are vintage Lyle. Kicking off with the goofball soul-funk of Penguins and the galloping country swing of That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas), Lovett offers up heartfelt tenderness (If I Had A Boat, North Dakota), jazz balladry (She’s No Lady) and bar room blues (Wild Women Don’t Get The Blues) — all rendered as crisply and clearly as any studio disc. The only difference is the well-deserved applause.
Sometimes I Cry
Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters; Montreal’s Tricky Woo are back. And this time they’ve got their mojo working overtime. Sometimes I Cry, their third full-length, is an undisputed, undiluted, overdriven rawk masterpiece, gene-splicing the Motown metal of The MC5, the hoodoo-punk insanity of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and the Sha-Na-Na-goes-ballistic firepower of Rocket From The Crypt. When they say they “get up in the morning just to get down,” you know it’s true; when they say they’re “gonna save you with rock ’n’ roll,” you believe, baby, you believe. And, like all great bands, they effectively wield the most important instrument in rock: The cowbell. Now, are you gonna be part of the solution or part of the problem?
In the ’70s, singer/songwriter John Southworth’s dad was a tunesmith for English glam rockers like Alvin Stardust and popsters like Lulu. Somehow, the British-born John, who now lives in Toronto, has managed to be a chip off all three blocks — along with a who’s who of eclectic eccentrics from Eno and Brian Wilson to Beck and Ben Folds. With an ever-changing, adenoidal voice that sometimes sounds uncannily like Marc Bolan, other times like Ray Davies — and sometimes, like a man on the edge of losing it — musical chameleon Southworth embroiders the charmingly surrealistic indie-pop pillows of his second album with whimsical tales of cute girls and gay guys, talking cows, and love that’s like hollandaise sauce. Dad would be proud.
Tonight The Stars Revolt!
A recent stint opening up for Marilyn Manson seems to have rubbed off on Boston space-rock foursome Powerman 5000. Tonight The Stars Revolt!, their sophomore CD, finds them dusting off Marilyn’s discarded Antichrist Superstar mantle and trying it on for size — and darned if it isn’t a pretty good fit. Singer Spider One’s ominous croak and spooky post-glam vocals mesh in wonderfully evil ways with the guitar shreddings of Adam 12 and M.33 (PM5K are big on numbers, if you didn’t notice). Thankfully, they don’t have Manson’s poker face; try as they might to maintain a horror-shlock vibe on cartoon-metal tracks like Operation Annihilate and When Worlds Collide, tunes like Blast Off To Nowhere and an amped-up cover of The Cars’ Good Times Roll reveal the smirk beneath the mask.
I Mother Earth
Blue Green Orange
Bands who lose singers have three options: Pack it in (like The Doors), hire a clone (like AC/DC) or get somebody totally new and hope fans buy it (like Van Halen). Modern-rockers I Mother Earth have gone for Door Number 3 on their post-Edwin debut Blue Green Orange. New vocalist Brian Byrne doesn’t have his predecessor’s slithering, sensuous style; instead, he’s spent time listening to Bono and Eddie Vedder — but his glammy side shows that he knows the words to Bohemian Rhapsody too. He also seems to have spurred the band to expand musically — and when they push the envelope, experimenting with electronica and trip-hop, IME has a new spark. When they fall back on tired post-grunge, however, it’s quickly doused. And even at their best, these guys better learn how to write a chorus, and fast. Otherwise, they won’t be looking for a singer next time; they’ll be looking for listeners.
Art Of Noise
The Seduction Of Claude Debussy
More art, less noise seems to be the motto of this long-awaited disc from the veteran British avant-popsters (now augmented by 10 CC co-founder Lol Creme). Still, these 13 captivating tracks inspired by the life and work of progressive 19th-century composer Debussy are a long way from 101 Strings. Intercutting a succession of classical passages with gently flowing trip-funk and low-impact techno grooves, AON add their trademark eccentricities — Leonard Cohenish narration from John Hurt, Rakim rapping about Baudelaire — to create a soothing, cinematic outing. I don’t know if Debussy would bite, but it seduced me.
Medieval Swedish folk ballads performed with a modern-rock edge; sounds like some gawdawful, camped-up lederhosen act you’d have to endure at a Ren faire, right? Wrong. If anything, fiery Nordic techno-rock quintet Garmarna would be right at home at a modern-rock stadium fest. They take centuries-old Viking ballads about witches, murder and (duh) vengeance, and drag them to the edge of the millennium, rendering the ancient melodies with smoky female vocals, spooky synths, distorted guitars and vaguely Celtic techno rhythms. If you could locate a midpoint between Björk, Nick Cave and Firewater, that’s where you’d find Garmarna. With nary a lederhosen in sight.
Blues Keep Me Holding On
Over the years, Savoy Brown founder and sole surviving member Kim Simmonds has had more bandmates than Meat Loaf has had midnight snacks. This latest incarnation is a trio, if that matters. But what really matters isn’t that Simmonds can’t hold on to staff; it’s that he hasn’t lost his touch. Nearly three decades after Street Corner Talkin’ and Hellbound Train, Kim still has the chops to handle all three points of the blues trinity: Smoky Chicago workouts, funky Texas rockers and haunting Mississippi dirges. Sure, he’s basically been rewriting the same songs for the last 25 years. But he does a pretty fair job of it.
The good news is that Mississippi farmer Asie Payton is THE blues find of ’99: A bad mammer-jammer with a soulful, sour-mash voice who can moan the blues like a broke-down piece of man or screech ’em like a hoodoo devil with a hellhound on his tail — and he sounds just as good backed by a chooglin’ Memphis-style R&B outfit as he does plucking his pawnshop guitar. The bad news? His debut CD Worried is also his last — Payton died in the saddle of his tractor in 1997. Luckily, before he went, the Delta blues preservationists at Fat Possum coaxed him into the studio to cut 10 raw sides guaranteed to smack your jaw down to the ground — and then glue a smile to your mug once you pick it up again. He’s the greatest blues legend that never was.
Stiff Little Fingers
Hope Street / Greatest Hits Live
When this disc arrived, my reaction was probably much like yours: These guys are still around? Don’t feel bad — even Stiff Little Fingers seem to know most folks forgot about them a while ago. Hence the carrot-and-stick approach to this two-disc set, which uses a live set of classics like Suspect Device and Alternative Ulster as bait for their new stuff. And fair enough; Hope Street is a fine way to get reacquainted with Jake Burns and co. What songs like the Stonesy Bulletproof and the R&B-fuelled You Can Get It (ex-Jam bassist Bruce Foxton earns his keep here) lack in youthful verve, they make up for with maturity and fire. Turns out SLF are not only still around, they’re still good.
Alice In Chains
Nothing Safe: The Best Of The Box
It seems bass-ackward: Months before their upcoming box set, Seattle proto-grungers Alice In Chains are issuing this 15-track set of hits, garnished with rarities. Turns out to be a savvy marketing ploy; rather than pre-empt the box, it’s whetted my appetite for it. Frankly, I’d forgotten how good these guys were, but album tracks from Dirt, Jar Of Flies and Facelift reminded me. And the unreleased goodies — a 1989 demo, some live cuts and the brooding, crunchy new track Get Born Again — have piqued my curiousity about what other gems the box will hold. Oh, and if you still aren’t sold, here’s something else: You have to buy Nothing Safe to get a special computer key to access some of the box set’s CD-ROM content. Speaking of marketing ploys.
Where Is My Mind: A Tribute To The Pixies
If you think about it, much of the ’90s rock scene — starting with Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit — already qualifies as one long Pixies tribute. The 15-track CD Where Is My Mind finally makes it official, cutting out the middleman and going straight to the source of the now-ubiquitous slow-soft / loud-fast template. And while the college-rock lineup here is a mixed bag, the results pass with flying colours, from Eve 6’s acoustic Alison to the poppy crunch of Weezer (doing Velouria) or Superdrag (Wave Of Mutilation) and Reel Big Fish’s jumpy Gigantic. Too bad Kurt Cobain isn’t still around to contribute a track.
The latest dirt-cheap set of tracks from ska and punk label Epitaph is subtitled Straight Outta The Pit, which is fittingly where most of the these 25 tracks come from. Rancid, All, Ten Foot Pole, New Bomb Turks, Bad Religion, NoFX, Agnostic Front and tattooed metal antagonists Zeke are just a drop of sweat in the bucketload of mosh-rock mainstays who give this comp plenty of bang, boom and crash for the kids’ allowance. As for new tunage, well, there’s a smoking Pennywise track. But the biggest kick is seeing new Epitaph artist Tom Waits in the lineup — I’d love to see the little skaters’ faces when his gravel-throated honk comes outta their speakers. Now that’s punk rock.
Brazilian music has come a long way since Carmen Miranda and her fruit-basket haberdashery, as evidenced by this mellow collection of contemporary South American sounds. If you’re expecting plenty of Carnaval-style drums and whistles, think again; mellow and rootsy are the marching orders here, from silky-smooth sambas and jazzy bossa novae to acoustic folk and reggae. While a few more upbeat tunes wouldn’t have hurt, it’s hard not to love this disc: Along with detailed liner notes and a list of other music to check out (many on other labels), Putumayo also donates part of the proceeds to a Brazilian children’s charity.
World According To Popguru
I confess: I only started listening to this Canadian indie compilation because it has a tune from Winnipeg rockers Leaderhouse. But then a funny thing happened; by the time I got to their number — the moody, defiant ballad Leaving Liberty — I was hooked like a carp by the savoury wave of lush, ’80s-style bubble-pop that dominates the rest of the disc. Some bands you might already know, like old wavers Martha & The Muffins and Red Autumn Fall. Others, like Beatlesque acts Sister Someone and Beautiful 2000, you should get to know. This album calls itself “a soundtrack in search of a film;” to be specific I think they mean a John Hughes film.
I’m too old, ugly and unpierced to get into hip dance clubs like East London’s Off-Centre. Luckily, I can get into this compilation from the club’s performers and DJs. Most of these 14 jungle, house and drum ’n’ bass outings from acts like DJ Die, Roota Manuva and Treva Whateva aren’t so much off-centre as left of Venus. Unlike the plodding, 4/4 thump of too much dance music, these fat beats boast a variety of complex rhythms — jazzy, Latin, funky or soulful. Tack on some inspired progressions instead of the usual ad nauseam repetition and a psychedelic aura instead of a cartoon vibe and you’ve got cuts so cool they’ll make you feel like you should stand in line outside your house while you play it.