Two decades ago, new albums from Eurythmics, ZZ Top, Matthew Sweet, Primus 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):
Did you catch Eurythmics’ performance on the Saturday Night Live anniversary show? If not, don’t sweat it; you didn’t really miss much. Just Annie Lennox, Dave Stewart and their latest hired-gun band going through the motions of another greatest-hits medley: Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This, Here Comes The Rain Again, yadda yadda yadda.
For a band kicking off a long-awaited reunion, though — not to mention promoting their first new album together in a decade — it was a telling move. Normally, you’d expect folks in their position to plug their new single. But as Dave and Annie hinted that night — and as the CD Peace makes abundantly clear — this reunion is not about moving forward but looking back, not about winning new fans but pleasing the old ones.
Need proof? Just put the disc in, push Play and check out leadoff track and leadoff single 17 Again — or, as you might think of it, Sweet Dreams Again. At first, when Annie croons “sweet dreams are made of anything that gets you in the scene,” over a jangly pop background, it’s kind of cool to hear her slyly mining her own past. But when she takes it to the next level — actually inserting Sweet Dreams’ chorus into the song — it turns from in-joke to something worse: Hey, remember that song? Well, here’s another just like it!
Sadly, while that sort of sonic recycling is found throughout Peace, that’s about as close as it ever comes to recreating the edgy brilliance and innovation of Eurythmics’ early breakthrough discs. Loaded with mid-tempo pop and syrupy fare, much of the album instead recalls the ballad-swollen, diva-centric solo albums Lennox issued in the ’80s. Of Peace’s 11 tracks, only two even make an effort to rock, and only one — the Iggy Pop-ish wail of I Want It All — manages to succeed. Apparently, Stewart, who, for my money, never wrote a better song than Would I Lie To You?, left his distortion pedal at home. Or maybe Annie left him at home — although he’s listed as co-writer of these tracks, he’s all but invisible on the album, relegated to the role of guitar player while Andy Wright plays keyboards and programs all the computers. Or maybe 10 years is just too long to be away. Either way, Peace is too peaceful for its own good — and definitely not the stuff Sweet Dreams are made of.
Back in the ’70s they were an honest-to-Texas blues band. But for more than a decade, ZZ Top have been the musical equivalent of a Flintstones cartoon: The production values are cheap, the jokes are hokey and they use the same backgrounds over and over. And like The Flintstones, they’re still a hoot. This 30th anniversary CD has eight studio tracks, four live tunes and all the electro-blues and tube-snake boogie you’ve come to expect in tunes like Poke Chop Sandwich, Crucifixx-A-Flatt and 36-22-36. It isn’t a classic episode by any means, but you’ll have a yabba-dabba-do time just the same.
If anybody deserves credit for the current power-pop revival, it’s singer/guitarist Matthew Sweet. The critics’ darling was churning out first-rate pop-crunch back when Cheap Trick were still on their first comeback. So you’d expect In Reverse to be a real bash, with Sweet as the life of the party he started. Instead, for some bizarre reason, he retreats into the corner, strumming away on his acoustic guitar and spinning slow, dreamy webs of ’60s jangle-pop. Granted, Sweet’s craftsmanship is such that wimpy, second-rate tunes like these are still better than most folks’ singles. Still, for him it’s disappointing. Maybe he’s trying to stay one step ahead of the pack, but In Reverse sounds like a step backward.
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
This Beautiful Life
Of all the retro-swing bands around these days, L.A.’s Big Bad Voodoo Daddy are undeniably the top of the heap. Of course, now that the genre is dying, that’s sorta like being the tallest guy in Midgetland. Still, the Daddies justify their status on This Beautiful Life, which is packed with jumping, thumping Gene Krupa drums, noirish standup bass, punchy horn wah-wah and melodies straight from the songbooks of Louis Jordan, Henry Mancini and Nelson Riddle. Looks like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy will be the last swing band to leave the party. Hopefully they’ll turn the lights out when they’re done.
Big slabs of foam-rubber bass. Check. Dumbass hayseed lyrics. Check. Goofball riff-rock freakouts. Check. Yep, AntiPop is a Primus album all right, with all the Zappaesque weirdness, Spinal Tap meathead metal and barnyard appeal that entails. But at least part of the time here, it seems Les Claypool and the boys are actually taking their medication and getting back to their rockin’ roots. Eschewing the psychedelic noodlings of their past few outings, Primus — with the help of a varied roster of guests including Tom Waits, James Hetfield, Tom Morello and Stewart Copeland — kick out the jams, ironically making AntiPop their most appealing CD in years.
In Spite Of Ourselves
What could be better than a new John Prine album? Well, how about a new Prine album consisting of country classics by the likes of Roger Miller (When Two Worlds Collide), Felice Bryant (We Could) and Don Everly (So Sad). What could be even better than that? Well, how about a new Prine album of country classics that are almost all duets, with JP intertwining his warm, smoky rasp with the sweet dulcet tones of gals like Iris DeMent, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood and even Connie Smith. And what could be better than that? Well, nothing I can think of.
The Time Machine
First, Alan Parsons was a gag in the time travel-themed Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Now, he has a new album — his 14th studio disc, for those keeping score — called Time Machine. Coincidence? Or the work of Dr. Evil? After spinning this stupefyingly dull batch of synth-driven prog-pop, you suspect the latter. With the exception of one decent track — the Lennonesque pop of Press Rewind — these Pink Floyd-lite ditties are as underdeveloped as Mini-Me. Throw us a friggin’ bone here, Alan. Or has Dr. Evil stolen your mojo too?
McMaster & James
Love Wins Everytime
This single slice of featherweight pop is the first release from the artists formerly known as 2Face — Winnipeg popsters McMaster & James. Maybe McBackstreet and Ricky would be a better name. Love Wins Everytime (co-written by the boys) is a Latin-pop confection dusted with sugary Backstreet Boys harmonies, apparently so it can cash in on both the Ricky Martin and bubblegum boy-band crazes at once. From their Hall & Oates stylings, it’s obvious the boys have some serious potential. But you can only hope their album (due early in 2000) lives up to it a little more.
Rhythm & Stealth
The members of this U.K. deejay duo say they aren’t musicians — they prefer to call themselves “sound fashionists.” They’re certainly fashionable — their ’95 debut disc Leftism topped Brit crit polls. And this stylish followup disc easily tops it with a video game-ready synthesis of subterranean trip-hop, deep dub and ninja electo-ska, anchored by the lads’ firm belief that there is no such thing as too much bass. They’re right, you know. In fact, there’s only one thing they’re wrong about on Rhythm & Stealth: Whether they like it or not, they are musicians. And damn good ones.
Medeski Martin And Wood
Last Chance To Dance Trance (Perhaps): Best Of 1991 – 1996
You either love organ jazz or you hate it. Acid funkateers Medeski Martin And Wood are definitely for folks in the former category. This compilation rounds up a baker’s dozen tracks from their first five releases before their breakthrough album Combustication. But even though these earlier works didn’t earn the bread, they still have plenty of jam: John Medeski’s B-3 burbles and percolates likes the world’s funkiest espresso machine, while bassist Chris Wood and drummer Billy Martin (no, not the baseball guy) lay down grooves thicker than shag carpeting, succinctly and smoothly bridging the gap between Jimmy Smith and George Clinton. So what’s not to love?
After nearly 10 albums, you’d expect a band to have decided on a style. But not 311. This Nebraska quintet’s fifth major-label studio outing (after three indie CDs, a live disc and a compilation) finds them unable to decide which of today’s trendy sounds to embrace: One song is ska-punk, another is rap-metal, the next is reggae-funk, a fourth is Latin rock. It’s not that any of them are awful — in fact, on a track-by-track basis, I’d take Soundsystem over Limp Bizkit’s Significant Other any day. But taken a whole, Soundsystem is less than the sum of its parts. By the time it’s over, you don’t feel like you’ve heard an album — more like you’ve spent an hour randomly skipping through the contents of a frat boy’s CD changer.
First we don’t hear from him for 10 years; now we can’t stop him. After a decade of silence, former Japan leader David Sylvian re-emerged in spring with the textured, moody and deservedly acclaimed Dead Bees On A Cake. Six months later, he’s back with this three-track disc. No, it’s not a single: Two of the songs are half-hour-plus ambient soundscapes featured in multi-media museum pieces the performer created during his time off the stage. Fittingly, Approaching Silence seems more like artwork than songcraft. The glacial pacing, trance-like drones and exotic minimalism of the instrumentation — strings, bells, gongs and the like — are as lulling and seductive as one of Monet’s water lilies.
Now here’s something you don’t hear everyday — dance music made with actual instruments. That’s right, acid-jazz Groove Collective isn’t just two guys with a sampler and some old records. This 14-member combo is an honest-to-goodness band, with a flesh-and-blood drummer (and percussionist) and real live horn players. And their disc Declassified proves that these old ways still work just fine, thank you. Like Liquid Soul or Herbaliser, GC know how to get down and get back up again in any style — along with the usual fatback funk and hip-hop jazz, they dip their toe in the tropical waters of Afro-Cuban salsa and rhumba. If it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it, chances are it’s on this CD.
You don’t have to read Luke Slater’s bio to know the U.K. techno deejay started as a drummer. Wireless, his sophomore release under his own name — he previously recorded as Planetary Assault Systems and Clementine, among others — is chockablock with beats. Big fat John Bonham ones; stuttering drum ’n’ bass ones; funky Clyde Stubblefield ones; even four-on-the-floor Detroit techno ones. It’s not like Slater ignores melody. Over these hard-hitting robot rhythms, he piles on synths, samples, snipped-up vocals and even screaming guitars until he ends up with momentous slabs of industrial-strength electro. Still, at heart Slater is a slave to the rhythm — and this CD proves he never met a beat he didn’t like. They should have called it Drums And Wireless.
Andrew Bird’s Bowl Of Fire
Oh! The Grandeur
Last week, my great-great-grandson brought one of those newfangled contact dish players out to my rest home. Now, normally I disdain such passing fads as the auto-gyro, tele-vision and Mr. Ford’s demonic horseless chariot. But I must confess, the sounds emanating from the wee lad’s robotic gizmo — a zippy cocktail of spiffy ragtime, cracking Dixieland and bathtub-gin blues — held me enthralled and returned us to the carefree, jitterbugging days of our youth. Junior says the orchestra leader’s name is Andrew Bird and he “jams,” as the hepcats say, with an outfit called The Squirrel Nut Zippers, named after my favourite candy-bar confection. Huzzah! Finally, whippersnappers with enough sense to understand good music when they hear it. Perhaps there’s hope for the world yet. As long as it doesn’t lead to dancing, mind you …
Josh Rouse & Kurt Wagner
Nebraska roots balladeer Josh Rouse did the music. Kurt Wagner, from southern chamber-folk outfit Lambchop, wrote the lyrics. Together their styles unite to create a magnificent, five-song slice of contemporary Americana — raggedly elegant, darkly alluring and possessed of a rough-hewn beauty created by the intimate interplay between the familiar twang of guitars and the ornate sounds of vibes, cello and trumpet. Not unlike Wilco or Vic Chesnutt collaborating with Burt Bacharach. What could be better? An entire album like this.
All Together Here
Some electronic artists cross cultures or countries. Others bend genres, genders or generations. Still others merge media. Lunar Drive do it all. This music/dance/performance/art collective led by U.K. composer Sandy Hoover includes several indigenous North Americans, including singer/dancer Reuben Fast Horse, a Lakota Sioux from North Dakota. Fast Horse and the rest offer up tribal chants and melodies, which Hoover updates and sets against a varied series of electronica styles — everything from sparse drum ’n’ bass to Luscious Jackson-style pop to rave-ready big beat. Actually, the beats could have been bigger — some of Hoover’s lightweight rhythms might have benefited from a dose of traditional drumming. But on the whole, All Together Here is an original take on an ancient art form.
Volare: The Very Best Of
I like The Gipsy Kings as much as the next guy. Heck, I’ve even bought a few of their albums over the years. But even to me, a two-CD best-of set with nearly 40 tunes seems excessive for a band with only two songs that even fans could readily name — the title cut and Bamboleo. Still, if you love the Kings’ hot-blooded, passionate flamenco fretwork, you’ll find all you want here. Of course, depending on your view of tracks like the Stars On 45-style Hitmix ’99 and their not-quite-weird-enough-to-be-cool version of Hotel California, you could also say you’ll find all The Gipsy Kings you want — and then some.