Two decades ago, new albums from Iggy Pop, Matthew Good, John Popper 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):
Iggy Pop has just learned he’s going to die.
Don’t panic; he’s not going anytime soon. No, it just seems that upon turning the bit 5-0, Iggy finally realized that like the rest of us, he’s not going to live forever. And while that may not be a big revelation to you or me, to the godfather of punk rock — the man who invented stage-diving, wrote Lust For Life and spent 30 years rolling in broken glass onstage, shooting drugs in his veins offstage and generally thumbing his nose at the Grim Reaper on a daily basis — the concept of death can be quite a shock.
“It was in the winter of my 50th year when it hit me,” Iggy explains on the spoken-word opening track to his magnificent CD Avenue B, a mesmerizing, sombre look at aging, love and loneliness. “I was really alone and there wasn’t a helluva lot of time left. Every laugh and touch that I could get became more important … as I considered the circumstances of my death. I wanted to find a balance between joy and dignity on my way out,” he says. “Above all, I didn’t want to take any more s—. Not from anybody.”
As if he ever has. From his earliest days in proto-punk quartet The Stooges, Pop has, like Frank Sinatra, done it his way. Except much, much louder. But now that Iggy is facing the final curtain, he wants to talk about something more important than the stuff he’s been yelling about for years. And to make sure you hear him, he’s going to get up real close and whisper it in your ear. Relentlessly bleak and acoustic-based, Avenue B (named for his old New York address), is the quietest, most introspective and intimate disc in Iggy’s long career. Don’t think for a second that he’s gone soft, though. Avenue B may not have all the raw power of … well, Raw Power, but it’s got plenty of emotional energy to fuel the fire. Iggy has always been fearlessly honest, willing to offer up his self-inflicted wounds for our examination. This time, the scars — of his solipsism, selfishness, and inability to commit — run beneath the surface.
Even so, Pop characteristically dives in head-first, sifting the ashes of his past and owning up to his screwups in a series of starkly intense songs: Provocatively dark ballads (Nazi Girlfriend), spoken vignettes (She Called Me Daddy), poetry-slam jazz-funk (I Felt The Luxury). Now and then he rocks out, like on the mid-tempo gutter-funk self-flagellation of Corruption (“It rules my soul”), the Latino groove of Español and a yelping, haunted version of Shakin’ All Over.
As Iggy admits on the title cut, “I need a miracle tonight.” And you never know, he just might get one. Avenue B is the sound of a man desperately staring down Death — and trying like hell to make it blink. And if anybody can pull that one off, it’ll be Iggy Pop.
Matthew Good Band
For a guy following up a platinum album — that would be 1997’s Underdogs — Vancouver’s Matthew Good is playing it pretty cool. The publicity photos for Beautiful Midnight feature him in a gorilla mask. Not exactly your typical pop-star turn. Fortunately, neither are the intelligent, well-crafted slices of thinking man’s guitar-rock that make up Beautiful Midnight. Like a Canadian Matthew Sweet, Good’s post-grunge power-pop gems have dark edges and moody, free-flowing undercurrents that anchor the roaming guitars and soaring vocals. Capable of merging the jangly introspection of R.E.M. and the sonic oomph of Pearl Jam into a sound all his own, Good may well be Canada’s best contemporary songwriter. As for the ear-catchingly produced Beautiful Midnight, it sure lives up to its name.
Without a doubt, the last few months have been one long buzz-kill for Blues Traveler’s John Popper. First, the extra-large singer did some time in hospital after heart surgery. Then BT’s druggie bassist Billy Sheehan up and died. Thankfully, Zygote was recorded before all that, back when Popper was still in a party mood. And fittingly, this disc is a musical celebration of sorts, with Popper playfully stretching out and leading his musicians through a houseful of new styles — the white-boy funk of opening track Miserable Bastard, the folky sitar groove of His Own Ideas, the Santana-esque bossa nova rock of Evil In My Chair — in addition to the breezy, Canned Heat-style roots-blues you’d expect. Blues Traveler’s future may be uncertain at this point, but Zygote shows Popper needn’t worry about his prospects.
One Part Lullaby
“Two parts fear” is the other ingredient here, according to Folk Implosion songwriter, Sebadoh leader, Dinosaur Jr. bassist and basement-rock demigod Lou Barlow. But never mind what he says — the real recipe also seems to call for a heapin’ helpin’ of vintage Beck. From the Devil’s Haircut riff of Free To Go to the European exotica of Serge (a tribute to Gainsbourg, not the fabric), from the cheeseball drum machines to the slacker vocals that drape themselves lazily all over the musical furniture, the shockingly well-produced One Part Lullaby is as spontaneous, freewheeling and charming as anything Mr. Hansen has issued — thankfully without the tiresome goofball vibe and white-rap shtik. And the ’60s acid-folk of Merry-Go-Down easily ranks as Lou’s best tune since Natural One. It’s a slice of pure mellow gold.
Yellow Submarine Songtrack
Full points for warmly remixed and remastered versions of these six classic tracks for the Fab Four’s beloved animated flick. No points for monkeying with the sequencing, deleting George Martin’s score and replacing it with nine tracks that were in the film but not on the original disc (such as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). And a major foul call for the cheapo cover art and booklet — no liner notes, no pictures, no lyrics, just a bunch of shots from the flick jumbled together. Where did this idea come from? Nowhere, man.
Death In Vegas
The Contino Sessions
This U.K. electronica duo has been stuck in the shadow of The Chemical Brothers for years. Their debut Dead Elvis came on the heels of the Chems’ Dig Your Own Hole, lumping them in as Big Beat bandwagon-jumpers. Even worse, they opened for the Bros on tour. Now, it seems they’re trailing Tom and Ed again. Like Surrender, Contino Sessions finds the messrs DIV forsaking the dance-floor for pop psychedelia, dishing up a platter of dark, dramatically dreamy rock that invokes the spirits of My Bloody Valentine and the jaded decadence of early-’70s Stones. Guest vocalists from Jesus And Mary Chain and Primal Scream — not to mention Iggy Pop, who chillingly croons about serial killers, no less — don’t hurt a bit. Whether it’s all enough to give Death In Vegas a winning hand, however, is another story.
“I’m real tired of the clones,” complains Lajon Witherspoon on this aggro-metal quintet’s sophomore CD. He’s a fine one to talk; Home is nothing but a carbon copy of Korn’s bottom-heavy riffs, Rage Against The Machine’s idealist furor and Alice In Chains’ murky metallurgy, all distilled into a flavourless concoction that somehow manages to be less than the sum of its parts. The single Denial isn’t just the only decent tune here — it also appears to be the state Sevendust are living in.
Live Aus Berlin
These Teutonic goth-metal stormtroopers are infamous for their pyrotechnic live show, during which — among other fiery feats — the lead singer sets himself on fire. Which would make this a great live disc if it were a CD-ROM. Alas, this audio-only version of events is far less explosive. While Rammstein’s pummeling dance-metal packs the punch of a Panzer assault, the production trickery that keeps their studio discs varied is missing here. All that’s left are 80 long, thumping minutes of pompous sturm und drang — or in this case, strum and clang. Buy the live video instead.
Seven Year Itch: 1982 – 1989
They swiped their look from The Police. They swiped their sound from Duran Duran. And for a short time in Canada in the mid-’80s, they had a few hits. Or did I miss something? Going by the gushing, reverent tone of this best-of retrospective, you’d think Mark, Sergio, Chris and Sascha (we bet even they can’t remember their last names) were John, Paul, George and Ringo. Sure, some of their tunes — Cryin’ Over You, Standing In The Dark, Situation Critical — are encoded in the DNA of anyone who watched MuchMusic in the ’80s. But another of their hits sums up their career: It Doesn’t Really Matter. (Oddly enough, despite the title, all these songs were released between 1984 and 1987. Hmm. Guess Seven Year Itch sounds better than Four Year Flash In The Pan.)
The contradictory title of this veteran B.C. outfit’s new album refers to the way this two-CD live set is divvied up: One disc for rockers such as She La, Ocean Pearl, Lies To Me and Assoholic, and another for ballads like — well, like acoustic versions of Ocean Pearl and She La, along with One Gun, One Day In Your Life and Miss You. Deciding which is better is a tough call. Heavy successfully captures the rootsy, loose-limbed swagger of the boys’ R.E.M.-meets-Crazy Horse vibe, although Mellow, with its intimate mood and relaxed pace, more clearly illustrates the strength of their songwriting and musicianship. The thing is, at 80 minutes, this all could have been on one CD. Then you wouldn’t have to choose.
The first ambient music I ever heard (and liked) was by Brian Eno. It was an LP called On Land, and to me it seemed almost like a musical version of evolution, with waves of synths whooshing and swirling like endless empty oceans. It’s a shot in the dark, but I’m guessing the electronica duo Tarwater — the latest in a long list of recent post-rock minimalists from Germany — could have had a similar experience. Although their atmospheric pop has too much human input to be truly ambient, the lulling ebb and flow of their rhythms, the hypnotic melodies and the submarine-bleeps of Silur (named after the period when the Earth was submerged) all sound like they share DNA with Eno’s work. It’s when the vocals come in — with aquatic-minded lyrics from Marc Bolan, Aldous Huxley and even Philippe Cousteau — that you know you’re seeing the next step in evolution: Pop from Atlantis.
Courtney Love on Prozac? Julianna Hatfield on uppers? It’s hard to find an apt comparison for the quirky combo platter of femininity and ferocity found in Tammy Lynn, singer/guitarist for co-ed NYC trio Battershell. Her songs have all the ragged-ass punk shredding and girl-pop melody of the two above, but without all the wrist-slash sentiment. Tammy is just someone who wants to have fun. And on Luv Punks, there’s plenty to be had: Goofy originals about circus tragedies, tattooed dogs and porn stars; goofy covers like a white-knuckle take on White Wedding; and goofy classic rock nods to everyone from KISS to The Vapors. Along with the everything-and-the-kitsch-in-sync production, it’s almost too cute for its own good sometimes, but on the whole, Luv is all you need.
Hate People Like Us
People Like Us is the brainchild of U.K. sonic collagist Vicki Bennett, whose cheeky soundscapes belong in the avant-garde bin next to the culture-jamming of Negativland. Since her work already consists of oddball tape effects, random samples, old tunes and other bits of sonic detritus jumbled together into kooky skits and concept pieces, the idea of remixing People Like Us kinda seems like retossing a salad. Of course, there’s also no wrong way to toss a salad. So Negativland, Death In June, Coil and a host of other experimenters have a go, tweaking Bennett’s twisted little vignettes into a fever dream of lycra, periods and prune juice (don’t ask). It isn’t really music, and it sure isn’t for everybody, but (to nick one of the song titles) people like us like People Like Us.
All Systems Go!
All Systems Go!
The bad news is that Montreal’s long-serving, much-loved pop-punks The Doughboys have called it quits. The good news is that leader John Kastner has teamed up with three more like-minded lads — including a couple of blokes from defunct American indie outfit Big Drill Car — and returned as All Systems Go! Which, as it happens, pretty much sums up their debut disc — a rubber-burning set of instant pop-core classics, fuelled by grungy ringing guitars straight outta Cheap Trick, a bit of turbocharging from The Replacements and The Ramones, and Kastner’s trademark harmonies that shimmer in the sun like polished chrome. We’ll all miss The Doughboys, but ASG are definitely way ahead of the pack.
Rico Bell & The Snake Handlers
Dark Side Of The Mersey
Is it just me, or has anybody else noticed that some of the best American country music — and by country, I don’t mean guys named Ty with big hats, I mean real blood-and-guts, two-fisted, hard-drinking country music — is currently being made by Brits? Just check out Jon Langford and any of his umpteen bands (Mekons, Waco Brothers, Skull Orchard, The Pine Valley Cosmonauts) if you don’t believe me. And while you’re at it, check out this barn-burner from his cohort, accordionist Rico Bell. Rico (really painter Eric Bellis) grew up by the titlular river, but his sound is right from the U.S.A. — the acoustic passion and sandpaper voice of ’80s Springsteen, the Cajun accordion of Jolie Blon, the nasal whine of Dylan. Like the Wacos, it’s more American than most real American music these days.
International Pop Overthrow Vol. 2
There has never been a better year to be in an indie-pop band. Thanks to Fountains Of Wayne, Ben Folds Five and others, everybody is finally doing what M predicted so long ago — talkin’ ’bout pop music. And this two-CD set featuring bands performing in an annual L.A. pop music fest is definitely something to talk about. With 42 tracks, it’s certainly the biggest collection of contemporary pop on the racks right now. And with the wall-to-wall jangle and summer melodies of Jason Falkner, Cloud Eleven, Chewy Marble, Double Naught Spies and plenty more — not to forget boss covers of Up, Up And Away from Big Hello and Big Man In Town by Liquor Giants — it’s also the best. Better pick it up now: It’s only a matter of time before pop goes the world.
Gee Baby Gee: Del-Fi Girl Groups
The Spice Girls? Forget about it. The Go-Go’s? Get outta here. This is the original Girl Power sound: The girl groups who ruled the late ’50s and early ’60s, after Elvis left for the Army and before The Beatles arrived. Most of these Left Coast ladies — The Sisters, Brenda Holloway, The Ladybugs, Pippy Shannon, Lori Martin — never achieved the prominence of The Shangri-Las or The Ronettes. But that seems to have just been the luck of the draw. As this finger-popping, head-bopping set of soul, R&B and surf tunes illustrates, they had the same harmonies, the same attitude and the same sassy sound as their more famous sisters. And they lived in the same world of high school heartbreak, walking in the sand, and guys who dance close — very, very close.
On the list of Bands Least Likely To Be Remixed, you’d think ’70s cartoon Britrockers Sparks would be near the top. Guess again. Right outta left field comes this set of Ron and Russell Mael tracks reworked by what the press notes call “some of the world’s most innovative producers/remixers/turntablists.” Oddly, none of them are named — but since nine of the 10 tracks were licensed from former collaborator Giorgio Moroder, one can hazard a guess. And the songs (Beat The Clock, Number One Song In Heaven, All You Ever Think About Is Sex and more) back up the case: Most were done during the band’s term with Moroder, and most of these remixes feature his stamp: Plenty of echo, lengthy drum breaks, extra keyboards. Sure, it’s not as cool as if Moby redid Amateur Hour, but hey, Sparks fans have to get their fix where they can.