Two decades ago, new albums from Pet Shop Boys, Everything But the Girl, Melissa Etheridge 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):
Pet Shop Boys
On the cover and inside the booklet of Nightlife, Pet Shop Boys are all dolled up with spiky blond wigs, dark glasses and trendy threads. But fear not, fans; they haven’t really gone through a trendy makeover. Nightlife, the duo’s latest dance-pop outing, finds Neil Tennant and Christopher Lowe unspooling more of their synth-driven dance-pop grooves, full of wailing divas, thumping beatboxes and glitter-ball production. As for the undead look, well, it seems to have something to do with the lyrics, which seem preoccupied with dark topics — emotional vampires, gays in denial, people who only say they love you when you’re drunk. They may love the nightlife, but now it seems Pet Shop Boys know there’s got to be a mourning after.
Everything But The Girl
Everything But The Girl’s Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt reinvigorated pop music and their career when they added house music grooves to their electro-pop sound on 1996’s Walking Wounded. This long-awaited followup follows in its footsteps, once again deftly toeing a tightrope between the dance floor and the top 40 charts. Music man Watt lays down mile after mile of track outfitted with cleverly simple melodies, flowing waves of lush synths and funky trip-pop flourishes, creating a solid foundation for Thorn’s increasingly confident vocals, which often recall a dreamier Annie Lennox. Like Wounded, expect Temperamental to be on plenty of critics’ Best Of The Year lists.
Heartfelt heartland rocker Melissa Etheridge’s sixth CD is her first in three years — and more importantly, her first as a parent. Predictably, she’s mellowed a little — Breakdown favours tapestries of acoustic guitars, sweeter melodies and slower tempi over arena-rock crunch. And there’s nothing here with the instant appeal of hits such as Bring Me Some Water or Come To My Window. But what it lacks in commerciality it makes up in new emotional depth. Along with the lullaby Sleep and the parental advice of Truth Of The Heart, Etheridge offers up one of her most empassioned songs to date, an ode to murdered gay teen Matthew Shepard called Scarecrow. It’s the kind of song only a committed artists could write — and only a mother could truly understand.
This Florida foursome has definitely broken out of the heavy-music mold — at least commercially. This sophomore CD not only debuted at No. 1 in Billboard, it dethroned Nine Inch Nails and beat out Garth Brooks in the process. And it’s not hard to understand Creed’s mass appeal. Their guaranteed-to-please sound is pretty much tailor-made for classic-rock radio: You get some of the ’60s in the Jim Morrison-like vocals, some of the ’70s in the Led Zep-style mysticism, some of the ’80s in the massive metal riffs and some of the ’90s in the grungified bash. Whether these guys have anything to offer in the ’00s has yet to be seen. Personally, I bet next year Human Clay will be the No. 1 album at used CD stores.
Three years ago it was Where Have All The Cowboys Gone? Now it’s Where Have All The Good Times Gone? Paula Cole’s third disc Amen is, as the title suggests, a solemn and preachy affair, burdened by dreary, self-indulgent songcraft, a overabundance of ballads, get-over-yourself lyrics such as, “I’m the grain of sand / becoming the pearl,” and even Cole (heaven help us) rapping. The only salvation is the angelic Philadelphia soul of surefire single I Believe In Love. Otherwise, Amen doesn’t stand a prayer.
Felons And Revolutionaries
As if Marilyn Manson hasn’t become tired enough lately, now we’ve got Manson wannabes. This aptly named NYC quintet — led by self-claimed former drug-dealing brothers Edsel and Simon, yes, Dope — have obviously spent too much time dipping into their own supply. And you know what that can do to your ambition. Rather than go out and create their own sound, the boys have just copped Rob Zombie’s scary monstrosity and Marilyn’s super creepiness and rolled them up into one big cartoon-industrial brainer. Heck, they’re probably so out of it they don’t even realize the chorus of Sick is a rewrite of the ‘bang, bang, bang’ vamp from The B-52s’ Love Shack. Why do you think they call them Dope?
The Distance To Here
In a world of shallow bubble-pop and superficial rap-metal, Live’s Ed Kowalczyk remains Mr. Earnest Alt-Rocker. Too bad meaning what you say isn’t the same as having something to say. Musically, Ed can still pull it off — Live’s fourth album packs all the heavy grandeur and artsy passion of prececessors like Throwing Copper. But lyrics like, “Can you hear the dolphins cry?” blow it right out of the water. And when he says, “you’ve got a serious side to you that could give the whole world a frown,” it’s obvious he should be looking in the mirror. Lighten up, dude.
Guitarist Mick Turner is one of the few virtuoso six-stringers who isn’t the focal point of his day job. That’s because he’s one-third of Australia’s Dirty Three, where violinist Warren Ellis’s angular tones often steal the spotlight. Thankfully, on Marlan Rosa, his second solo disc, Turner has the whole place to himself. And he stretches out with loose, flowing instrumentals that wander from ambient hypnotism to jazzy outings and post-rock experimentalism, when they aren’t weaving tapestries of country-tinged melancholy or constructing cathedrals of Frippertronic harmonics. But mostly, Turner knows how to hit that long, lunar note — and let it float. Let’s hope for a few more solos on the next Dirty Three disc.
I Am The Freshmäka
Fresh is the word, baby. East Coast DJ Freshmäka’s bio claims he’s worked with everyone from Method Man and Busta Rhymes to K.C. And The Sunshine Band. It’s no wonder. With his head in the clouds, his feet on the dance floor and his tongue firmly planted in cheek, Samuel Von Freshmäka comes off like a combination of old-school Beastie Boys and Fatboy Slim on a debut disc loaded with hard-edged boogie, goofball groove and pop-and-lock disco-tech. Not to mention that Fyvush Finkel Flavas wins the Song Title Of The Week award. This Mäka ain’t no fäka.
Riot, Riot Upstart
They want a riot, a riot of their own. And New York hardcore vets Agnostic Front create the sonic equivalent of a bloody good rampage on their seventh CD. After flipping the musical bird to N.Y.C.’s mayor on opening salvo Police State, AF — who could be The Dictators’ punk-rock cousins — start kicking ass and taking names, crashing and thrashing its way through 17 tracks in less than 30 minutes. Along the way, they loot the rock vaults of classic metal guitar riffs, Rancid-style shoutouts, anthemic singalongs and plenty of good ol’ fashioned hardcore mayhem. Turns out Joe Strummer was wrong — not all the power is in the hands of the people rich enough to buy it.
If F-Minus co-founder Brad Logan’s name is familiar, you’re either an Agnostic Front fan or a South Park fan. The punk vet guested on AF’s last CD, and Rancid named its track on the Chef Aid disc after him. So it’s no surprise that this CD from Logan’s co-ed punk quartet was produced and released by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, or that it hits as hard as anything from AF. Harder in fact. F-Minus doesn’t so much play songs as pitch them like grenades — these 20 tracks of rapid-fire power-polka drums, screeching weasel guitars and broken-glass howls explode in your brain in just 17 minutes. That’s right, 20 songs, 17 minutes. You do the math. With speed and power like that, F-Minus deserves an A.
Heavy Black Frame
There’s no business like slow business these days — everywhere you look, bands are making a big noise by tuning up, turning down and nodding out. Along with Low, Labradford, Spain and Bedhead, the best of the bunch is London’s Tram, whose moody music bears as much resemblance to its name as Mannheim Steamroller’s does. Paul Anderson knows how to create maximum effect with a minimum of sound — his tranquil folk/rock dreamscapes float gently past like leaves on the fall breeze, his voice seldom rising above a shy croon as he gently stums his guitar and plucks your heartstrings with tales of quietly broken hearts and bruised emotions. Some folks call it bedroom-rock, some call it sadcore, others slo-fi. In Tram’s case, you can just call it extraordinary.
Elisabeth (Solex) Esselink makes it look so easy. A couple of years back, she bought a used recorder, sampled some old CDs from the record store she owns in Amsterdam, topped that with sweetly detached, sing-songy vocals and voila!, she had Solex Vs. The Hitmeister, one of the top indie albums of 1998. Such a feat would be impossible to duplicate; wisely, with Pick Up, she doesn’t try. Instead, she moves forward, creating smoother tunes that lurch less than her debut’s Frankenstein constructs and delivering vocals that give you the impression she at least knows what language she’s singing in — even if she still seems to be making up the words on the spot. Once again, her arty experimentalism will remind folks of Bjork; however, her forays into twisted blues and Beckish folk-whimsy also invite comparison to Luscious Jackson and Cibo Matto. Esselink may be edging toward commerciality, but there’s still no boundary to her sound.
Tara Lyn Hart
Tara Lyn Hart
She may live in Nashville these days, but Roblin’s favourite daughter Tara Lyn Hart hasn’t come far from her rural girl-next-door roots on her major-label debut. As debut discs from country songbirds go, this one is refreshingly down-to-earth — there are no double-entendre tunes, no blatant crossover rockers and no belly button shots (in fact, the 21-year-old mother of two seems more eager to get her wedding band into as many pix as possible). And with good reason — on these 14 tracks of roots-pop sweetness and light, the torch ’n’ twang of her confident, textured voice is all she needs to turn heads. The field of uniquely named country gals is already pretty crowded with Shania, Reba, LeAnn and Wynonna — but they might want to make room for Tara Lyn.
Bristol DJ Roni Size’s 1997 album New Forms put him at the forefront of the U.K. drum ’n’ bass pack. Now, with Breakbeat Era, he’s so far ahead he’s lapping the competition. Teaming up with DJ Die and a singer named Leonie Laws, Roni ditches the jazz licks and wailing divas of New Forms and tries hard-stepping funk and rock on for, er, Size. It’s another perfect fit. With tough, punchy grooves, knife-sharp drum machines that skitter and lurch, guitars that howl down dark alleys and throbbing subterranean basses, Ultra-Obscene is high-tech sci-fi braindance that makes the ultimate soundtrack to Blade Runner’s urban dystopia. It’s true — Size matters.
Split Lip Rayfield
In The Mud
Take an old gas tank, strap a stick to it, attach a wire to either end and pull. No, it’s not a bomb — but it is a volatile device. That’s how you make a gas-tank bass, the low-tech instrument at the swampy bottom of Split Lip Rayfield’s bizarre backwoods sound. One part bluegrass, one part punk, the 16 moonshine-sucking masterworks on SLR’s sophomore CD In The Mud are devilishly good tales of murder, dismemberment and 3.2 beer, cranked out by a fleet-fingered quartet who flail away at their banjos, mandolins and guitars like metalheads knocking off Van Halen licks. Think I’m kidding? Check out the bassist’s scabbed and blistered hand on the back cover. Yes, they’ve suffered for their art; now it’s your turn.
That ’70s Show: That ’70s Album – Rockin’
That ’70s Album: That ’70s Album – Jammin’
As if there aren’t already enough ’70s compilations out there, here come two more: one with vintage rock, the other disco, courtesy of the Fox sitcom That ’70s Show. There’s no reason even to look at the Jammin’ disc — if you don’t already have a ’70s dance compilation in your collection, I doubt the umpteenth reissue of Jungle Boogie and Get Down Tonight is going to change that. As for the rock outing, the only real attraction is Cheap Trick’s new version of the show’s theme song, taken from Big Star’s In The Street. And while I love Trick as much as the next guy, their version — augmented with lyrics from Surrender — doesn’t hold a candle to the original. Do yourself a favour and buy a Big Star album instead.
Reads On The Road
So dig it: They found some scratchy old acetates in the Jack Kerouac archives labelled Charlie Parker, but when they played them, bam!, they turned out to be big bad Jack his old self, reading a half-hour slab from his fabulous, funky, freewheeling American classic On the Road, only maybe the discs weren’t really mislabelled since Jack’s reading style is like music unto itself, laced with scatting and riffing and all the verve of Bird blowing Ornithology at the Three Deuces on Saturday night, so naturally they had to put it all out there for the world to hear, and tacked on some extra spoken-word tracks including a never-published poem, along with a tribute song from Tom Waits and even a few tracks with Jack singing — singing! — oldies but goodies like Ain’t We Got Fun in a surprisingly dulcet tone and with only the merest tip of the hat to irony; so dig it already.
A Coney Island Of The Mind
As the owner of City Lights publishing house and bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is as responsible as anyone for the success of the Beat movement. But as a poet and writer, he’s always taken a backseat to contemporaries like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. This release is a somewhat belated paying of dues, featuring Ferlinghetti’s epic, titular poem set to a cornucopia of musical vignettes by composer Dana Colley. Read by the author in his warm, woody rasp, it’s a ride through the theme park of his imagination — a bold, bawdy, beautiful trip on the roller-coaster of life, with the occasional stop in the tunnel of love. Well worth the price of admission.