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Back Stories | My Album Reviews From July 30, 1999

Rewinding some classic albums from GBV, RZA, GZA and plenty of others.

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Two decades ago, new albums from Guided By Voices, The Make-Up, Biohazard 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):


Guided By Voices
Do The Collapse

Guided By Voices are not your father’s rock ’n’ roll band … and then again, they kind of are. Let me explain: Once upon a time, singer/songwriter Bob Pollard was a Grade 4 teacher in Dayton, Ohio. By day, he was a mild-mannered educator; at nights and weekends, he transformed into a rock star (at least in his own mind), rehearsing with his band, writing quirky little tunes — sometimes no longer than 20 or 30 seconds — and recording them in his basement.

For most aging wannabe rockers, this would be enough. But not Bob; he pressed his weird home tapes into self-released albums — five of them between 1987 and 1992. They all feature his odd mix of British Invasion pop melodies, psychedelic song snippets and hippy-dippy wordplay, delivered with garage-rock musicianship and indie-rock grit. Oh yeah: For some reason, Bob also sang in a weird, pseudo-British accent. Who he thought would buy these albums is anybody’s guess; legend has it he ended up smashing many of them against a wall.

Luckily, some managed to find their way to the rock press, and not surprisingly, anybody this strange and obscure was bound to become a critics’ darling. Hyped by Spin and Rolling Stone, GBV slowly took off — but never stopped recording in Bob’s basement. In 1994 came their breakthrough album, Bee Thousand; shortly afterward, Pollard quit teaching. Since then, they’ve made a bunch more records, and Pollard’s made noises about wanting to become a real rock star with gold records and stuff.

Which brings us to Do The Collapse, the first GBV album to be released on a major label, recorded in a real studio and groomed by a big-name producer — Ric Ocasek of The Cars. And, true to his word, Bob has issued his most pop-oriented, accessible album yet. In fact, it may even be his most approachable album since Bee Thousand. But if I were him, I wouldn’t put that trophy case in the rec room just yet.

Here’s the problem: Despite the slick new sound, radio-friendly arrangements and string overdubs, Pollard hasn’t changed his simple-Simon songwriting: You get the sense he still just bangs out a slew of garage-rock riffs on the guitar, adds cobbled-together lyrics (calling lines like “Take me through the voodoo, Buddha” anything but silly is just being diplomatic) and repeats the process until he loses interest or the tape runs out. All he and Ocasek have really done here is taken tunes that would have lasted 50 seconds in the past and stretched them out to three minutes.

Don’t get me wrong; Bob’s idiosyncratic instant-karma technique is part of what makes him great. And frankly, it’s kind of neat to hear a GBV album that isn’t full of tape hiss and dropouts. And some of those new songs — like Teenage FBI, Zoo Pie and Hold On Hope — are as good as anything he’s written. But somehow, I just don’t expect Do The Collapse to bump Offspring off the charts.

Still, if you haven’t heard GBV yet, you won’t find a safer place to start. And for fans, it’s ultimately a case of meet the new Bob — same as the old Bob.


RZA
The RZA Hits
GZA / Genius
Beneath The Surface

With nine core members and an ever-expanding roster of satellite performers (and all of them delivering platters as fast as Domino’s), you’d have to spend plenty of time (and cash) to keep up with Wu-Tang Clan releases. Fortunately, the Wu deal in volume, and they pass the savings on to you — in the form of this 18-track primer compiled by the New York ninja-rap posse’s sensei RZA. Along with essentials from the group’s 1993 Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), you get solo cuts from Method Man, ODB, GZA, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, all featuring their signature mix of horror-movie strings, kung fu samples and whumping, slo-mo bass. (Less than essential: RZA jabbering pointlessly about the songs — or about the group’s clothing line, as he does on one commercial, er, narration.) Once you’ve digested the hits, move on to GZA/Genius’s Beneath The Surface. Although he can play it as hard as his bandmates, GZA isn’t afraid to mix it up, making the strings a little sweeter, the delivery a little smoother and the chorus a little catchier.


Styx
Brave New World

One of my favourite South Park moments came when Cartman got Styx’s Come Sail Away stuck in his head. He’d have no such trouble with cuts from their latest CD Brave New World; I just listened to it and can’t really recall any of ’em. Oh sure, I generally remember what they sound like: A few rocked, but most were Billy Joel-style piano ballads that wouldn’t be out of place in an off-Broadway musical about Aldous Huxley. And I seem to recall that for some bizarre reason, the soulful opening track sounded like (I swear I’m not making this up) Backstreet Boys. That’s, um, brave?


Biohazard
New World Disorder

The title isn’t the only thing that dates back to the Bush administration; thundering Brooklyn foursome Biohazard have been stomping the terra since the ’80s. Trouble is, that’s where their music has been stuck. New World Disorder ignores the industrial-strength changes and electro-shock treatments metal has undergone lately for the old-world thrash-funk of bands such as Prong and Faith No More — all mountainous guitars, plate-tectonic bass and kinetic drums. Too bad every Korn-fed band these days does the same thing — and most make it sound fresher. So Biohazard’s latest lives up to their name: It’s powerful, but basically a waste.


Alex Pangman
They Say …

Like Delta bluesmen, traditional jazz vocalists are a vanishing breed. Think about it: When was the last time you heard a new jazz singer? And I don’t mean some ear-pierced, zoot-suited swing trendoid but a real jazz lover: Somebody who knows Louis Armstrong from Louis Jordan. Well, meet Alex Pangman, a Toronto prodigy who knows that and a whole lot more. She’s just 22 here, but her stunning debut sounds more like she was born in ’22 as she croons classics from long-forgotten singers like Ethel Waters, Helen Forrest and Maxine Sullivan, aided by the superb backing of an authentic ragtime sextet led by a tastefully restrained Jeff Healey.


Louis Prima & Keely Smith
Bobby Darin
Mrs. Miller
Ultra-Lounge: Wild, Cool & Swingin’ Artist Series

Wild, cool and swingin.’ You’d be hard-pressed to find three better adjectives for hilarious hepcat and Vegas legend Louis Prima. That makes him the perfect crooner to kick off this new series of Ultra-Lounge albums spotlighting kitschy-cool vocalists from years gone by. And kick it off with a bang he does — musically, this two-CD set is the finest Prima collection ever assembled, with 44 songs and 140 minutes of Louis’s lasagne lunacy, his deadpan squeeze Keely Smith’s cool chanteusing and sax man Sam Butera’s honking horn. Two previously unreleased tracks are what had me salivating, but you don’t have to be a fan to dig the man who taught Brian Setzer to Jump, Jive An’ Wail and let David Lee Roth know it’s OK to be Just A Gigolo. While Louis was the king of the Desert Inn lounge, Bobby Darin was headlining in the big room. Forget Splish Splash, kitten; this set is strictly Darin done debonair, with plenty of ring-a-ding-ding and finger-popping swing as the B loosens the tux tie and croons happenin’ hits like As Long As I’m Singing and I Got Rhythm. Finally, over in the comedy club, there’s ’60s cult figure Mrs. Miller, who definitely ain’t got rhythm. Or melody. One of the most bizarre and least talented singers ever waxed — imagine what Tiny Tim’s mom might sound like — Miller woefully warbles, whistles and generally blunders her way through every song put in front of her, whether it be Girl From Ipanema or Yellow Submarine. Wild, she’s got in spades. Cool and swingin’, not so much.


The Runaway Bride
Various Artists

Most soundtracks these days have so little to do with the movies they accompany, you wonder if anybody even looks at a film’s title, or if they just slap B-sides and covers into groups of 12 and parcel them out willy-nilly. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. This soundtrack to the Richard GereJulia Roberts romcom about a serial bride was obviously created with nudge, a wink and a smile. U2’s Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Hall & OatesManeater, Billy Joel’s Where Were You On Our Wedding Day and two Dixie Chicks tunes — a cover of You Can’t Hurry Love and new single Ready To Run — make this a winner. It may not be a runaway hit, but hey, at least they’re trying.


Free Enterprise
Various Artists

This quirky little flick about two Hollywood wannabes who end up palling around with William Shatner came and went from theatres faster than a Pauly Shore double-bill. The soundtrack may have a longer shelf life. Not for its musical lineup; that’s the usual slate of rock retreads (Duran Duran’s Planet Earth, The Cult’s She Sells Sanctuary) and obscure newcomers (Bertine, Weed). No, the selling point here is the latest of Shatner’s increasingly loopy musical performances — a hip-hop tune called No Tears For Caesar over which ol’ Bill recites Shakespeare, raps and generally hams it up so much he should wear a slice of pineapple for a hat. Lend him your ears.


Enemymine
Enemymine

When I say Enemymine play drums and bass, I don’t mean they’re an electronica act. They really play drums and bass — this trio is made up of two bassists and a drummer, ex-members of noise-core gurus Godheadsilo and slow-core practitioners Low. Basically, Enemymine blend the best of both those worlds; slow, subterranean rumblings and noodlings that gradually build — or suddenly explode — into full-frontal, cacophonous audio assaults. Anybody who’s heard drum-and-bass acts like The Inbreds or Winnipeg’s own Duotang already knows you don’t need a guitar to make music. Enemymine prove you don’t need one to kick serious ass, either.


The Make-Up
I Want Some

If a religious cult kidnapped The Artist Formerly Known As Prince and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, locked them in a cellar for six months and brainwashed them, they might come out sounding like this Washington, D.C., gospel-punk foursome. Yes, gospel-punk. It’s the only way to describe The Make-Up’s crazed collision of styles — a place where the James Brown get-down groove of Clyde Stubblefield meets the angular chop of indie-rock guitars, the freakysexy moan of TAFKAP and the testifying uplift of a revival meeting. I can’t tell if singer Ian Svenonius wants to save your soul or play the devil’s music — but either way, he’s out to lay his hands on you.


Gaze
Shake The Pounce

Sugar and spice and everything nice; that’s what this all-female trio from Vancouver are made of. And on their sophomore CD Shake The Pounce, Gaze take all their key ingredients — sweet-tart vocals and frosted harmonies, pixie-stick drums and candy-floss guitars — and spin them into a handful of dreamy pop-rock treats that are sure to be an irresistible sugar fix for any indie-pop fan with a sweet tooth. Just open your ears and say, ‘Awwww …’


Toumani Diabate & Ballake Sissoko
New Ancient Strings

Mali musicians Toumani Diabate and Ballake Sissoko are second-generation masters of the kora — an African lute-harp with a big gourd on the bottom and 21 strings in two rows above. Some 30 years ago, their fathers made the first album of kora music, called (you guessed it) Ancient Strings. Now, the lads pick up the torch with inspired results. First, you notice how versatile the instrument is; at times, you’d swear you’re hearing mandolins, flamenco guitars or harpsichords. Then, you notice how versatile the musicians are, as they mix African, Asian and Pan-American melodies and styles into a fascinating program that soothes without being cloying or New Age. Their sons have their work cut out for them.


Ali Farka Toure
Niafunké

Ry Cooder fans may recall Ali Farka Toure from Talking Timbuktu, their Grammy-winning 1994 collaboration that bridged the gap between Delta blues and world music. Now, finally, Toure has returned to the studio. Actually, the studio went to him; this CD was recorded with portable gear and a generator in his remote Mali village. That setting comes through in the music; Naifunké displays less of an American influence — the chiming, staccato picking that prompted comparison to Robert Johnson surfaces only occasionally — in favour of a more African feel that relies on droning, circular guitar lines which overlap and play off each other like ritual chants. You won’t forget him now.


Tekla
Somebody Else

“I am not the one you think I am — I’m somebody else,” sings this Swedish dance-pop nightingale on her debut disc’s title track. Fair enough. Trouble is, after listening to this collection of hypnotic grooves that fall somewhere between the dance floor and the chill-out room, it’s hard to tell who that person is. Sometimes, the trippy techno and poppy melodies remind you of Madonna; other times, her smoky sexuality recalls Chrissie Hynde; still others, the pristine harmonies suggest Tori Amos. None of that is a bad thing; But it would be better if she would just be herself.


Cloud Eleven
Cloud Eleven

Back when Brian Wilson was making pop masterpieces like Pet Sounds, you had to have a studio, a ton of gear and a room full of players and engineers — all on the clock. No wonder he lost it. These days, thanks to technology, a budding Beach Boy can do the same thing in their attic, by themselves, on the cheap. And lots do. But frankly, not many do it as superbly as Rick Gallego, the musical wunderkind of Cloud Eleven. He plays pretty much everything but drums on this stunning self-produced debut, and heaven only knows how long it took him. These dozen tracks have layer upon intricate layer of breezy British Invasion harmonies, power-pop guitars that crunch and jangle like Matthew Sweet, and stylish, psychedelic production that makes you remember what stereo is for. It might be quite a wait for the followup — but it’ll likely be worth it.