Two decades ago, new albums from Third Eye Blind, Dave Matthews 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):
Third Eye Blind
Talk about a Semi-Charmed Life. In the wake of that megahit single and the platinum 1997 debut disc that featured it, you’d expect this followup to be a prime contender for sophomore slump status. Not so. On the remarkably solid Blue, Third Eye Blind singer/songwriter Stephan Jenkins shows he’s kept his eyes and ears open, evolving into a songwriter capable of fusing rock riffs and pop hooks into solidly crafted, radio-friendly works that walk the line between alternative and classic rock. Foo Fighters fans will appreciate the post-punk squall of Anything; Zepheads will dig the swaggering guitars of 1000 Julys. Neither will dig Jenkins’ overearnest lyrics (10 Days Late is about teen pregnancy), which are the only weak point in what is otherwise a wholly charming affair.
Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci
Spanish Dance Troupe
This quirky Welsh quintet — whose name translates to Dimwit Reproductive Monkey, whatever that means — is often compared to avant-pop U.S. acts such as Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel. The resemblance goes deeper than a fondness for three-word non-sequitur names, though. LIke those acts, GZM also shares a love for heartfelt melodies rendered in sunshiney ’60s settings, although they tend to favour the twee pop of The Kinks or the medieval-tinged folk of Fairport Convention over The Beatles and Beach Boys. And, of course, they appreciate a dose of sheer sonic silliness, as displayed in the vocal chant freak-out Hair Like Monkey Teeth Like Dog or the eccentric, Sparks-style popper Poodle Rockin.’ Cheeky monkeys.
Dave Matthews Band
Neo-hippie Dave Matthews and his funky bunch are often portrayed as heirs to Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead’s tie-dyed sensibility. Maybe so; but musically, as the double-live disc Listener Supported makes clear, they’re beneficiaries of Lowell George and Little Feat as well. And not just because Dave drops some lyrics to Dixie Chicken in his own Crash Into Me. Like the Feats, the DMB has an awesomely funky drummer, plenty of syncopated groove and a partay-down vibe that makes the Dead seem, well, dead. Too bad the thing they did inherit from The Dead is a penchant for endless jamming — with songs that average seven minutes in length, Listener Supported has more noodling than a Thai eatery at lunch hour.
Dub Narcotic Sound System & Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Jon Spencer and Calvin Johnson of Olympia’s Dub Narcotic Sound System have been flirting for a while now. JSBX covered a DNSS tune a few albums back; Johnson produced some tracks on Spencer and co.’s Acme. Here, they finally consummate the relationship, joining forces on nine numbers taped over a two-night stand in Johnson’s home studio. They make a fine couple; Calvin’s phlegmatic croak and funhouse keys are a perfect match for Spencer’s blooz revivalism and guitar skronk. But you wish they had spent more time writing; the CD lasts 40 minutes, and the jammy, one-riff nature of many tunes suggests it took about that long to record. Even so, at least we still respect them both in the morning.
Chant Down Babylon
Duet with the dead CDs are seldom enticing, but this one seems especially sacrilegious — rappers and singers harmonizing with the ghost of reggae messiah Bob Marley on reworked Wailers classics. More’s the surprise, then, when Chant Down Babylon turns out to be a, well, joint effort that works. Marley’s loose-limbed, flowing style seems tailor-made for sampling and looping (which isn’t far from traditional Jamaican dub, come to think). All involved, from Marley’s sons and Lauryn Hill to Erykah Badu and The Roots, treat the tracks with the respect they deserve. Heck, even Busta Rhymes avoids stepping on Bob’s lines. And you know this is the only place you’re going to hear a duet between Bob and Steven Tyler (Roots, Rock, Reggae). As Marley would say, hope this jam is gonna last.
The Best Of Me
In general, there are two kinds of Bryan Adams songs: The classic rockers he penned in the ’80s, and the movie-soundtrack ballads he’s been churning out in the ’90s like so much string cheese. Sadly, these lactose-laden love songs form the bulk of the second-rate Best Of Me, which comes just six years (and two studio CDs) after his ’93 hits pack So Far So Good. The disc has its moments — despite being a Def Leppard ripoff, The Only Thing That Looks Good On Me Is You is one of Adams’ better tunes in years — but All For Love, Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman and the jangly new title track are all songs rock fans could do without. Much like the shot of his butt in the booklet.
The string sections and acoustic guitars, the tippy-tap drums and hand percussion — if you’ve heard one unplugged album, you’ve pretty much heard ’em all. That goes for Alanis Morissette’s new offering, which features toned-down, Lilith Fair-y versions of You Learn, Head Over Feet, Ironic and other hits from her two CDs. As if to make up for the cliche format, however, Morissette unveils new material: a dreamy version of The Police’s King Of Pain and three new originals, which meander along in her usual stream-of-consciousness style. It won’t win her any new converts, but her fans can play this for the family at the holidays — as long as they skip the steamier bits of You Oughta Know.
Songs From The Last Century
A cover album, by George. A year after his best-of set Ladies And Gentlemen, George Michael returns with another retrospective — this time spanning the last century. Pulling a Bryan Ferry, he covers tunes all the way from the dirty ’30s (Brother Can You Spare A Dime?, My Baby Just Cares For Me) up to the ’90s (U2’s Miss Sarajevo), often using jazzy, period arrangements and crooning like a lounge lizard working the big room. Along the way, he proves two things: 1) Pop music has changed plenty in 100 years, but a great song is still a great song; and 2) Even though his voice has matured since the Wham! days, Michael doesn’t really have the chops for Frank Sinatra classics like Where Or When. Still, this interesting diversion beats hearing another rendition of Careless Whisper.
Ricky Martin wants you to shake your bon-bon, baby; Enrique Iglesias, however, wants you to know that you look mah-velous. Aparrently taking a cue here from dad Julio (To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before), Enrique croons like a latin lover underneath your balcony, batting his big brown eyes and pledging his undying heart in a soulful voice that soars over pillowy soft rhythm tracks, sweetly seductive strings and flamenco guitars that flutter like flocks of butterflies. As his hit Bailamos shows, Iglesias can sing rings ’round Ricky without being nearly so cheesy. Unfortunately, the rest of this disc shows sometimes he can also be as bland as Velveeta.
The Dance Album
Smashing idea — get the Humpster to rework some of his classic croonfests like Spanish Eyes and Release Me for the dance floor and turn the King Of Romance into the King Of Rave. Sadly, the concept sounds a lot cooler than this CD does. Don’t blame Humpy; he still has it (whatever it is) in spades. It’s the producers — Chris Cox and Barry Harris of Thunderpuss 2000 — who are the jokers in the pack. Their idea of updating the Hump involves laying down track after track of generic, HiNRG disco thump, layering on a tacky, cliche synth line and letting poor Humpty pretend he’s at karaoke night at Studio 54. Where’s Fatboy Slim when you need him? Now that would be a version of Man Without Love we’d love to hear.
Cowboy Sally’s Twilight Laments For Lost Buckaroos
Mekons vocalist Sally Timms has the voice of an angel and the heart of a cowgirl. Both of them come out to play on Twilight Laments, her first album in years and a disc that truly proves that even cowgirls get the blues. On these 10 twisted lullabies about Sad Milkmen, Dark Suns and, um, Dr. Strangelove, Timms’ lovely, cotton-candy voice sweetens her melancholy melodies like a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down. For her part, Miss Sally gets help from Mekons mate Jon Langford, Robbie Fulks, violinist Andrew Bird and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who all lent a pen, a pluck, or a production hand to the cause. Not that she needs it; all by her lonesome, she spins these eccentric ditties with an easy grace and hypnotizing beauty that’ll smooth your troubled brow and send you to dreamland.
Let It Bomb
They come from Tokyo. They have names like Moo-Stop and Bukka. They have a cutesy-poo cartoon bear mascot. You’d expect Zoobombs to be another go-go pop act like Pizzicato Five. Wrongo. The ’Bombs will rock you like a hurricane — or at least a Blues Explosion. As they did on their 1998 debut Welcome Back, this quartet taps into the same primal blooz vein as Jon Spencer, churning out slabs of fatback groove as greasy as any Fat Possum act. But here they also expand to include Stones-y rockers (the Sympathy For The Devil vibe of Mo Funky) and ballads (the Memory Motel melancholy of Pleasure Drop). Meanwhile, Bomb The Bomb raps the rap, 4190 flirts with trip-hop and Ships Are Alright takes a (Jimmy) Page from Zep’s folk-blues fakebook. And any band that covers Spinal Tap’s Gimme Some Money is already the bomb in my opinion.
EP + 2
Glasgow post-rock quintet Mogwai are nothing if not a study in contrasts. After two albums and a remix effort, their trancy guitar-rock instrumentals remain almost beyond description: they’re ambient yet muscular, lulling yet compelling, directionless yet propulsive, droning yet melodic, noisy yet harmonic, lush yet austere, cold yet passionate, Slint yet My Bloody Valentine. Possibly one of the greatest bands of the upcoming decade, Mogwai are like some giant bird that shouldn’t be able to fly, yet manages to soar majestically above the clouds. Grab EP + 2 and go along for the ride.
Perhaps the only 30-minute best-of album in existence that still manages to be 25 minutes too long. If you want to hear What I Got and Wrong Way, go buy Sublime’s self-titled disc, released shortly before singer Bradley Nowell fatally OD’d. If you want to support musical necrophilia, well, go buy one of the 600 or so posthumous Jimi Hendrix releases. At least you’ll still be listening to him 10 years from now — unlike this.
Long Beach Dub Allstars
All-stars? Maybe two stars. Well, two semi-stars. Sublime’s surviving rhythm section, Eric Wilson and Bud Gaugh, anchor this horn-driven surfer-skank septet. And while the laid-back lads have adopted the subatomic bass and rastaman vibrations of reggae down pat, calling them a dub outfit is also a stretch. Sure, some of these 12 tracks flirt with the echoey deconstructionism of the experimental Jamaican sound, but the Allstars aren’t exactly Lee Perry. After all, we don’t recall Lee ever launching into a D.C. punk passage after a grassy groove. But let’s not quibble: At heart, all these boys want to do is get mellow and jam with friends like the Bad Brains’ H.R. or Barrington Levy — and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Hope & Adams
With a name like Wheat, you’d expect blue-collar rockers straight from the heartland. But these boys actually dwell a mite closer to the edge — geographically and musically. Hailing from Massachusetts, this foursome are obvious devotees of Wilco’s rootsy romanticism, Pavement’s slacker-rock loopiness and Paul Westerberg’s cynical beauty. And on this second album, they mingle them all into engaging, multi-layered gems whose enchanted, frail melodies are bolstered by a slanted indie-rock aesthetic. It may not be from the heartland, but it’s definitely heartfelt.
Don’t think Sister Sledge, think Sister Morphine. Or maybe Sister Ray. This gang of slo-mo dream weavers — none of whom, near as I can tell, is a nun, female or named Sonny — traffics in the tranquilized tones and opiate grooves that have hooked legions of contemporary indie bands. But while the sound is pure ’90s, its roots reach back to the ’60s — specifically, the murky buzz of The Velvet Underground and the reverb-soaked acid swirl of Pink Floyd. Toss on some shimmering guitars and glistening keyboards to give the whole thing a coating of lunar ice and you’ve got the missing link between Radiohead and Heroin. And one truly twisted sister.