Two decades ago, new albums from Beck, Dr. Dre, Kim Mitchell 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):
At first, he was just a loser getting crazy with the Cheez Whiz. Then he got a devil’s haircut, two turntables and a microphone and figured out where it’s at. But now, Beck Hansen has grown up. He’s matured. And he has a far more important goal: He wants to freak you all night long.
Not in so many words, perhaps — but that’s definitely the body language that this Angelino hip-hop folkie is putting across on Midnite Vultures, his sixth album (counting indie releases) and the “official” followup to his 1996 smash Odelay. That’s as opposed to last year’s “unofficial” followup Mutations, with its folky numbers, downbeat vibe and emphasis on live performances instead of studio constructs.
Much of Midnite Vultures, by contrast, is closer to vintage Beck: The kooky pop pastiches, the stream-of-consciousness lyrics, the shag carpet and glitter-ball disco vibe, the all-knowing smirk, the pop-and-lock dance beats. But I wasn’t kidding when we said he’s matured. This disc doesn’t suffer nearly as much from the attention-deficit disorder that’s plagued earlier albums. On several tracks, Beck actually sustains a single, soulful groove for an entire number. Even when he does jump from style to style — like on Sexx Laws, which leaps from ’60s go-go funk with punchy R&B horns into a backwoods banjo and pedal steel progression — what seems madness turns out to be brilliantly methodical when he ends up layering the two genres together into a weird new hybrid. Likewise the lyrics; they’re still freaky, but not randomly so. On Nicotine & Gravy, he uses them like building blocks to create a specific mood of a wartorn landscape; on Hlwd. Freaks, he constructs a full-blown sendup of West Coast hip-hop, complete with blunted homeboy delivery and references to party people, Hyundais and “hot sex in back rows.”
Which reminds me: I also wasn’t kidding about that freak-you-all-night thang. “I wanna defy the logic of all sex laws,” he declares in the opening cut — and damned if this white boy doesn’t give it his best shot for the next 50 minutes, inviting us all for a cruise on “the good ship menage a trois” and promising to “leave graffiti where you’ve never been kissed.” Yow! If it reminds you of Prince, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Several of Midnite Vultures’ sultry vibes lock into a slinky, Revolution-era groove, with Beck trying the Purple One’s sleazy falsetto on for size. It all comes together once and for all on the surreal closing track Debra — a wild, five-minute R&B slow jam worthy of the Artist himself, with Beck howling, yowling and faking it so real he’s beyond fake.
Which is another way of saying he’s still getting crazy with the Cheez Whiz.
After trying to kick gangsta-rap cold turkey a few years back with Been There, Done That, Dr. Dre is back on the Chronic tip. And like that groundbreaking 1992 album, the rap odyssey 2001 is one mind-blowing musical joint. Just as he did back in the day with N.W.A., Dre kicks in the bass on these 22 tracks, dropping funk grooves that slow-roll like a low rider cruising through Compton as he and homeboys Eminem and Snoop trade off old-school rhymes filled with bullets, blunts and hos. Ain’t nothing but a g-thang, baby — and the best rap album you’ll hear this side of an N.W.A. reunion.
Man, I love Max Webster. I have all their albums, saw all their concerts, know all the words to every song on High Class In Borrowed Shoes. Not like that makes me special; the Max machine’s Zappaesque rock has plenty of fans. But it does make this comeback album from frontman Kim Mitchell something of a disappointment. At this point, Kim is definitely not a wild party; he’s a divorced father of two. And accordingly, he’s toned down the musical and lyrical weirdness, opting instead for slick, lite-rock hooks and plenty of earnest tunes about losing his way, losing his love and losing his heart. Aside from a few brief glimpses of his previous lunatic genius, it seems like he’s also lost his spark.
Rev. It’s short for review. Or revelation. And you get some of each on this satisfying compilation from former Jane’s Addiction and Porno For Pyros visionary Perry Farrell. In the review category, Rev offers a decent recap of Farrell’s career, from Jane’s classics like Been Caught Stealing and Mountain Song to Pyros’ Cursed Male and Pets. As far as revelations go, well, there are some of Farrell’s eye-opening covers (The Grateful Dead’s Ripple, West Side Story’s Tonight, The Velvet Unerground’s Satellite Of Love). But the biggest jaw-drop is reserved for his new version of Whole Lotta Love, in which he deconstructs Led Zep’s FM classic into four minutes of throbbing, skittering drum ’n’ bass perfection. It reminds you that when it comes to Farrell, Rev is also short for revolutionary.
The Last Tour On Earth
When your live show is as fiery (literally and figuratively) as Marilyn Manson’s, a live album can be a dicey proposition. Will it work without the visuals, like KISS Alive? Or will it just come off half-baked, like Alice Cooper Live? On The Last Tour On Earth, Manson’s glass is half-full — while you can’t help but miss his freaky costumes and rageaholic outbursts (plenty of which are captured on the concurrently released God Is In The TV video), the blistering, venomous power of songs like Get Your Gunn and Beautiful People transcends the limits of the format. Detractors may hope The Last Tour is a sign his 15 minutes is about up — but if he’s on the way out, he’s going with a bang.
Live In Concert
On her first live album, erstwhile 10,000 Maniacs vocalist Natalie Merchant covers both David Bowie’s Space Oddity and Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush. Which pretty much sums up the two sides to her musical personality: on the one hand, eccentric artist; on the other, earnest folkie. Both of those are on display here as this quirky Lilith fairy recreates 11 typically intimate tracks from her catalog. Oddly enough, she spends half the set on songs from her 1995 Tigerlily album — and even does two Maniacs tunes — while offering only the title track to the more recent Ophelia. If there’s a reason, you won’t hear it from Merchant; here, her only spoken words are thank you and goodnight. Her music communicates everything else she wants to cover, presumably.
Sounds Of Science
Hipster doofuses Beastie Boys have only issued five albums, so is a two-CD anthology really warranted — especially one that only has one completely new track? In two words: Hell and yes. The thing about the Beasties is that along with those albums, they’ve issued so many singles and EPs with exclusive tunes that only a true fanatic could have collected it all. Along with the predictable hits (Fight For Your Right, Hey Ladies, Root Down, Intergalactic), the 42-track Sounds Of Science is strewn with these little treasures: Tracks from the pre-rap hardcore days; country numbers from Mike D; live cuts and remixes; and three unreleased rarities, including that new joint Alive. Oh, and if you think you could do better, well, here’s your shot — on the B-Boys’ Web site, you can program your own anthology, which they’ll burn to CD and ship to you. Speaking of The Sounds Of Science.
Those who dug the drum ’n’ bass futurism of Roni Size’s New Forms will definitely want to hear what Krust’s Coded Language has to say. Unlike plenty of other deejays, Krust doesn’t just sound like a member of Size’s backing outfit Reprezent; he actually WAS a member, helping to craft and produce New Forms’ groundbreaking tracks. His first solo outing threads a similar dark and twisted path through a d’n’b underworld furnished with caffeinated, jerky breakbeats, Psycho synths, subatomic bass, jazzy inflections, emphatic emcees and diva-ish vocals. Admittedly, sometimes it’s a little too reminiscent of New Forms. But even if he sometimes says things we’ve already heard, Krust definitely knows what he’s talking about.
Much Against Everyone’s Advice
“Everybody wants to be the deejay / everybody thinks it’s all so easy,” says Soulwax’s Stephen Dewaele. He knows better — he and his brother David are known in clubland by the no-duh handle Dewaele Brothers, two of Belgium’s top wax spinners. Here, they try to make the career leap to a slightly more musical station: Pop act. And damned if they don’t pull it off superbly. On Much Against Everyone’s Advice, the brothers show they are just as adept with guitars and pop hooks as they are with turntables and samplers. With plenty of melancholy melody and witty wordplay, the brothers recall Elvis Costello or perhaps XTC — but when the crunchy guitars kick in, so do thoughts of Matthew Sweet and Afghan Whigs. This may be the best recent album you’ve never heard.
Give ’Em The Boot II
When it comes to sheer bang for your buck — both financially and sonically — you can’t beat Epitaph compilations. This second instalment of Give ’Em the Boot, featuring bands on Tim (Rancid) Armstrong’s Hellcat imprint, offers up 22 tracks by nearly as many bands, for a low list price. Not surprisingly, Rancid is the main attraction here: along with two contributions of their own, the lads play house band, backing up Mad Lion, Buju Banton and Buccaneer on their tracks. Between, there’s plenty of noise — some old, some upcoming, some unreleased — from this ska-punk label’s first-class roster, which includes The Distillers, Gadjits, Hepcat, Pietasters, Joe Strummer, The Slackers and more. If only all comps could be this consistent — and cheap.
Seven Foot Spleen
You know how your Walkman starts to sl-o-o-o-w d-o-o-w-w-n when the batteries get low? Perhaps to you that’s just an everyday annoyance — but to North Carolina’s Seven Foot Spleen, that’s a style. And this quintet mines it for all it’s worth on Enter Therapy, 74 minutes of dinosaur-stomp drums, guitars that rumble like semi-trailers shifting uphill and incomprehensible vocals (with song titles like Free Crutch Rental and Leech Eater, this may be a plus) that sound halfway between a blowtorch and someone trying to primal scream during a bout of the dry heaves. Relentless, evil and as subtle as a ball peen to the crotch, Seven Foot Spleen makes sludge-rock acts like The Melvins sound like Alvin & The Chipmunks.
End Of Days
This theological thriller marks the second coming of Ah-nuld after Eraser and heart surgery put the kibosh on his action hero career for a few years. But his downtime is nothing compared to that of the legend making a comeback here — Guns N’ Roses. Oh My God is the first song in nearly a decade from the band, now basically Axl Rose and a rotating cast of hired guns. The track confirms Axl’s reported interest in electronica, kicking off with squirrelly beatboxes and squishy keyboards before exploding into a typically bombastic, overwritten Guns number of duelling guitars, pounding percussion and Axl screaming like an unanesthetised vasectomy patient. Hopefully, the movie rocks as hard. As for the rest of the disc, it’s the usual album tracks and leftovers from Korn, Limp Bizkit and Eminem. Hopefully, the movie doesn’t have this much filler.
Metal-thrashing madmen Overkill have always worn their influences on their leather sleeves — they even took their name from a Motörhead classic. Here, they take their fandom to the next level, rerecording their favourite slabs of classic metal. It’s no surprise that list includes that eponymous Motörhead track, along with tunes from the unholy trinity of Black Sabbath (Never Say Die, Changes), Deep Purple (Space Truckin’) and Judas Priest (Tyrant). There are also a few eyebrow-raisers, though; who would have expected Overkill to harbour affection for the old-school punk of The Ramones (I’m Against It), Sex Pistols (No Feelings) and Dead Boys (Ain’t Nothin’ To Do). Not to mention their version of Tequila — obviously another big influence in more ways than one.
Deviate Beyond All Means Of Capture
Punk rock foursome Skull Kontrol doesn’t like music fans like you. They certainly don’t like rock critics like me. In fact, Skull Kontrol doesn’t seem to like much — except, it would appear, old-school punk rock bands like Circle Jerks and Angry Samoans. Despite the determined individualism of their debut album’s title, that’s who they seem to be channeling on this eight-song blast of anti-everything skronk. Laced with plenty of nihilistic guitar tugging, off-kilter drumming and yelping vocals, Deviate packs all the fury and spittle real punk rock should. Which is to say, I like them — even if they don’t like me.
On the list of Unusual Places To Be An Eccentric Indie-Pop Band, Nashville in the ’90s must be right up there with, oh, Compton. Maybe that’s why Duraluxe now live in band-friendly Athens, Ga. That’s one good career move; Dolorosa is another. These journeymen tunesmiths’ debut is practically an audio thesis on History Of American Pop 101. The shimmering hooks of Big Star, the jangle power of The Posies, the grand psychedelic swirl of The Flaming Lips, the rootsy introspection of Paul Westerberg; they crib it all at one point or another here. They’re still trying to figure out how to combine all these styles into their own, but when they do, look out. One day, these guys will write an all-time classic. This is your chance to say you knew them when.
Matthew Sweet’s recent album In Reverse was a bit of a dud. Here’s the album he should have made. Actually, in a way he did — the power-popster produced, co-wrote some songs, and lent his guitar and voice to the fourth CD from this indie-rock duo. It’s a perfect fit; they’ve all obviously spent way too much time poring over British Invasion singles and Big Star albums, soaking up every Byrdsy guitar lick and gorgeously layered harmony. Unlike Sweet, however, Velvet Crushers Rick Menck and Paul Chastain unplug the fuzztone pedal, preferring to let their spot-on vocals and sunshiney melodies take centre stage. Otherwise, Free Expression sounds a bit like the best Matthew Sweet album you’ve never heard.
For Beginner Piano
Imagine if Ennio Morricone and Kraftwerk did the soundtrack to The Teletubbies. If you can’t, well, you don’t have to; Birmingham synth-pop trio Plone have already done it for you. And made it a reality. For Beginner Piano is one of the most unique — and uniquely compelling — debuts you’ve heard lately. Taking the robot-pop beats and squiggly keyboards of ’80s synth-pop as a basis, Plone add whistling Moogs, nursery-rhyme melodies and toy-box effects to fashion silly symphonies playable by ages six and up. Call it My First Electronica Album.
As The World Burns
Who says you shouldn’t play with fire? It sure hasn’t done this pyrotechnic New York rap crew any harm. Indeed, their explosive 21-track debut is a smoking groove from beginning to end, blazing a trail between the smouldering menace of Wu-Tang Clan and the incendiary cartoons of Eminem or Insane Clown Posse. Building a musical fire with layers of beatbox snares that snap, crackle and pop like kindling amid big fat logs of bass, this Latino hip-hop quintet proceeds to fan the flames, tossing off strings of red-hot verbal fireworks — many, if not most of them devoted to fire — that detonate in the air like Roman candles. With this much firepower, you know they won’t be a flash in the pan.