Two decades ago, new albums from Nine Inch Nails, Sloan, Chris Cornell 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):
Nine Inch Nails
The passage of time as you and I know it seems to be a concept that has little meaning for Trent Reznor. For instance, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t own a calendar. After all, it’s been five years — several lifetimes in pop music — since Reznor’s one-man industrial-electronic outfit Nine Inch Nails released its last album The Downward Spiral, a bleak, visceral maelstrom of beautiful melodies, bludgeoning jackhammer beats, bestial sex and boundless self-loathing.
Since then, the music scene has changed more often than Cher in concert. Perkiness, bubblegum and Limp Bizkit have replaced nihilism, grunge and Nirvana. An endless parade of disposable popsters has eroded our attention span so thoroughly that sitting through a whole CD seems a major investment of time. So what does Reznor do? He releases The Fragile, a mammoth, demanding double-CD set — 23 tracks totalling more than an hour and a half. (So now I’m fairly certain he doesn’t own a watch, either.) Brimming over with betrayal, bitterness and broken hearts, The Fragile could very well be the darkest, most challenging, most completely anti-commercial release of the year.
Luckily for us all, it’s also one of the most artistic and fascinating discs of ’99 — even though it doesn’t really sound much different from ’94. Sure, there seem to be a few more guitars to go with the banks of synthesizers, and a greater ratio of moody instrumentals to blistering rockers this time out. But Reznor’s faithful will nevertheless find The Fragile instantly familiar. Heartfelt sentiment still shares a bed with frank depravity. Elegantly minimalist melodies still slam up against punishing, white-noise cacophonies. Whispering voices still build to blood-curdling roars. But oddly enough, it still works. Maybe it’s the lengthy downtime, or maybe it’s today’s teenybopper landscape, but for some reason Trent’s throbbing synths, menacing guitars and primal screams seem every bit as fresh and powerful as ever — if not more so.
Equally impressive is the way such a sprawling, varied work manages to hang together. While some of the individual tracks don’t really seem to pack much punch — when the suicide-solution single The Day The World Went Away was initially released, I was mistakenly unimpressed — Reznor’s flowing composition style and jump-cut arrangements somehow splice them into a grand, sweeping epic that adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. No wonder he claims he was unable to cut it down to a single CD. Frankly, I’m glad he couldn’t. Hell, I’m just glad he managed to release anything. Given Reznor’s concern with deadlines, The Fragile could easily have been three years later and three discs longer. But I doubt it would have been three times as good.
Between The Bridges
You know what sucks? That boy bands like Backstreet Boys are rich and famous while real bands like Sloan toil in obscurity. But alas, quality seldom equals quantity in the music biz — and I doubt this latest masterpiece from Canada’s most gifted pop-rock tunesmiths will change that. With its watertight harmonies, razor-sharp hooks, wry lyrics, John Lennon-meets-Ben Folds segues, disco breaks and even the occasional cry of “Whooooo!”, Between The Bridges is one of the smartest, most original pop discs of the year. And it’ll still be outsold by Christina and Britney. Sigh.
In the teenage wasteland of rock, it’s tough to grow up gracefully. But it seems former Soundgarden bellower Chris Cornell has found the secret: Baby steps. First he dropped his Jesus Christ pose and matching Medusa locks. Then he stepped away from the grunge-metallists at the height of success. Now, as he leaps into the superunknown of solo stardom, he’s ditched his old band’s Led Zep licks for laid-back guitars and piano balladry, dropped the angry metal for dark neo-psychedelia and augmented his leather-lunged holler with intimate crooning and even a bluesy falsetto. In Cornell’s world, a black hole sun rises on Euphoria Mourning — but it’ll still wash away your pain.
To Venus And Back
“Father, I killed my monkey,” breathes the ever-quirky Tori Amos at the opening of the two-CD set To Venus And Back, just to let you know she hasn’t lost her um, unique lyrical touch. As for the music and vocals, well, that’s another monkey’s tale. Instead of the usual musical therapy session, Venus captures Tori in a relaxed, meditative state, gently vocalizing over a series of electronica soundscapes with subliminal, trip-hoppy progressions. For those who prefer the more traditional, high-strung Amos, don’t fret. The second disc — a live collection recorded with her band last year — finds her in familiarly flamboyant turf, making love to her piano on favourites like Little Earthquakes, Waitress and Precious Things. That oughta shock your monkey.
Our Lady Peace
Happiness … Is Not A Fish That You Can Catch
These Toronto modern rockers may not believe happiness is within their grasp, but they should have had no problem reeling in a handful of hits and a boatload of sales with this tasty new disc. This followup to their last CD Clumsy finds the Peaceniks evolving into sure-footed and confident songwriters, augmenting and leavening their post-grunge brooding and bombast with intricate arrangements, Britpop melodies and harmonies, glammy flourishes, swirling, swooping electronica touches — and in one bizarre pairing, the swinging drums of jazz legend Elvin Jones. Happiness may not be a trophy catch, but it’s definitely a keeper.
Shame on you if you missed Bring It On, 1998’s astonishing, award-winning debut from Gomez, a gaggle of young English lads who sound like old American bluesmen. But here’s your chance to redeem yourself. The followup Liquid Skin picks up where the last disc left off, with the blokes summoning forth the spirits of decades of Americana — CSNY, The Grateful Dead, The Band, Tom Waits, the Allmans — and introducing them to the ghosts in today’s drum machines, effects and studio gizmos. From the rootsy funk of opener Hangover to the Vocoder-and-horn-tinged midnight blues-jam of closing track Devil Will Ride, they make beautiful music together. Bring it home.
Burn To Shine
Most musicians and singers mellow as they age — the tunes slow down, the grooves soften, the melodies get sweeter. But like Neil Young, singer-songwriter Ben Harper swims against that current. Over the course of four albums, he’s evolved from a tender troubadour into a heavier, guitar-charged rocker. Burn To Shine, his most fully rounded and varied set yet, continues the trend. In addition to the spiritual sensitivity of Harper’s acoustic ballads, Burn also smokes with Lenny Kravitz-style funk-rock, bathtub-gin ragtime, human beatboxes, urban folk-jazz, Stonesy guitar-rock and even some Otis Redding soul power. At this rate, expect Harper’s next outing to include drum ’n’ bass and speed metal. And expect to dig it as much as this one.
Veterans Of Disorder
Along with death and taxes, there is a third certainty in life: Royal Trux. And it’s far more welcome than the others. Over the last decade, the junkie-rock duo of singer Jennifer Herrema and guitarist Neil Hagerty has ignored every musical trend, steadfastly sticking to a tried-and-true cocktail of ragged boogie-rock, whacked-out barbiturate blues and Jenny’s she-goat-from-Hell voice. So it’s no surprise that Veterans Of Disorder, the pair’s eighth outing, has all the Glimmer Twins decadence and dumbass lyrics (“I wanna go to the water park / The water’s cool but the sun is hot!”) of discs past. And while a few songs (like the sonic freakout Blue Is The Frequency) are less accessible than the rattle ’n’ hum of ’98’s Accelerator, fear not: Disorder is still Royal Trux of the first order.
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Albums of remixes and leftovers are usually all the same — a couple of good tracks, some pointless knob-twiddling and a whole whack of filler. Not so with Jon Spencer’s Xtra-Acme, a 19-track affair packed with 75 minutes of extras and goodies left off last year’s spectacular Acme album. Why these tunes were left off is anybody’s guess: The dozen or so new tracks here are as good as anything from Acme, boasting all of the JSBX’s blooz-punk skronk, hoodoo choogle and moonshine evangelism. Whether he’s singing the praises of Lap Dances with Andre Williams, harmonizing with Jill Cunniff, jamming with Moby or crooning “I want to have a hot dog with you, baby,” Spencer’s cooking up trouble — and his greasy, finger-lickin’-good leftovers never fail to satisfy.
Dream City Film Club
In The Cold Light Of Morning
With a handle like Dream City Film Club, you expect something lulling and cinematic. And that’s what you get — at least, some of the time. But just when you’re getting used to the peace and tranquility, this London trio unveils one helluva plot twist, slapping you right in the kisser with a solid whack of blues sludge straight from The Stooges 101: Raw, primal rhythms, menacing tones and swaggering, feral postures, all delivered with just a touch of Brit restraint and sophistication. Or at least as much restraint and sophistication as you can muster in lyrics such as “I could stroke your hair or tear it out of your head / I could kiss your throat or I could choke you instead.” Now that’s what I call a surprise ending.
Avant-garde guru Bill Laswell offers up some pre-millennium tension on the hip-hop tip on this set from his “non-group” collective Material. With help from a variety of rappers — from old-schoolers such as Killah Priest and Flavour Flav to new kids like Kool Keith — Laswell constructs a futuristic trip-hop dystopia of conspiracies, checkpoints and rodent robots. And while all the apocalyptic vocal freestyling is top-notch, what really sets Intonarumori apart is the music. Instead of the usual boring beats and one-finger synths, Laswell and co. — including P-Funketeers Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell and Jerome (Bigfoot) Brailey — lay down deep, fully formed flights of sonic fancy. Together with some inspired sampling and turntablism, they keep these 16 tracks grounded with hooks and choruses while simultaneously launching them past Saturn.
Hank Williams III
The last thing the world needs is another Hank Williams Jr. Fortunately, his son Shelton — aka Hank III — takes after his grandfather instead of his pappy. (Given the choice, wouldn’t you?) And on his debut disc, sometimes the resemblance is so close it’s spooky. That familiar nasal yodel, that catch in his voice, the hurtin’ honky-tonk tunes, the glistening slide guitars — it’s all here as perfectly as if somebody jumpstarted Hank and plunked him down in the studio with a ’90s band. Of course, Hank III doesn’t have granpappy’s knack for tunesmithery, but he’s even solved that problem — he covers some songs by another Williams soundalike, Wayne (The Train) Hancock. Who knows what Dad thinks, but I bet Hank Sr. is smiling.
The Ultra Zone
Guitar magician Steve Vai probably earned most of his fame and fortune during rock star turns with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake. But for my money, he did his best work years earlier backing Frank Zappa. (Check out his spotlight tune Stevie’s Spanking on 1984’s Them Or Us and 1991’s You Can’t Do That On Stage Vol. 4 if you don’t believe me.) Thankfully, it’s FZ’s spirit and not DLR’s that inhabits the soul of his latest one-man-band outing — and not just on the tribute instrumental Frank. Like Zappa, Vai is a consummate musician with keen intellect, fluid dexterity and jaw-dropping virtuosity. And like Zappa, he’s got a warped sense of humour, leavening his intricate flights of fancy fretwork with goofball lyrics about bees and licks inspired by Stevie Ray Vaughan. He’s in the zone.
“Guns, money, cars, drugs, jewelry, clothes, rolls, killings, boroughs, buildings, disease, stress (and) NYC.” For Prodigy and Havoc, the two members of New York’s Mobb Deep, that pretty much sums up life in the ’hood. And it pretty much sums up the subject matter on their fourth album Murda Muzik, a dark, dangerous collection of bleak urban tales — like the one about the boy whose happy family memories include his father teaching him how to shoot a 9-mm handgun — set to heavy, pulsing grooves that have all the tension of a drug corner confrontation. This is the real deal — no Puff Daddy guest spot, no poppy samples, no skits. Just reality. You are about to witness the strength of street knowledge.
Percussionist Andy Stochansky spent years drumming behind Ani DiFranco, but the Torontonian has finally stepped into the spotlight — and it’s clear he’s a man who marches to his own beat. However, Radio Fusebox is no drum-wank opus. On this, his second independently released album, he conjures up ethereal folk-pop like no one else; haunted vignettes full of fragile yearning, weird instrumental arrangements featuring literally everything AND the kitchen sink, and oddball time signatures and rhythms that spotlight his haunted, hauntingly beautiful voice. Cold yet compelling, distant yet intimate, Stochansky’s Radio Fusebox is like one of those late-night broadcasts you pick up while cruising the far edges of the dial and can’t get out of your head for days afterward. Tune him in.
Taj Mahal & Toumani Diabate
Taj Mahal isn’t the first to explore the common ground between American blues and African music — his old pal Ry Cooder and Mali guitarist Ali Farka Toure have mapped out that terrain extensively. But Mahal’s new collaboration with Mali kora master Toumani Diabate and his band may be the most effective pairing of the two sounds to date. Taj’s folky finger-picking dovetails smoothly with Diabate’s intricate plucking of the harplike, 21-string kora, and the perfect balance between genres — the band alternates between African tunes like the title cut and Delta classics like Queen Bee, and sometimes even switches languages and styles within songs — successfully erases the lines between the two cultures. A shoe-in for a Grammy nomination, Kulanjan will please blues fans, world music lovers and anyone who just likes beautiful music expertly played from the heart.
Monsters & Robots
Let’s get one thing clear: Buckethead is not your average guitar hero. First off, he comes by his name honestly; he performs wearing a 14-piece KFC tub on his noggin. Along with that, he sports a white plastic Kabuki mask. The total visual effect is not unlike Paul Stanley from KISS on a major bender. Thankfully, Buckethead’s bizarro-guitaro style — a fever-dream blend of 11 different herbs and spices, from heavy-metal riffage and dreamy melodic mantras to jagged solo shards and spaced-out effects — is nothing like KISS. Actually, here it reminds you more of Primus, most likely because bassist Les Claypool and drummer Brain are the extra-crispy backing band. All you need are fries and cole slaw.