Home Read Back Stories | My Album Reviews From Dec. 17, 1999

Back Stories | My Album Reviews From Dec. 17, 1999

Rewinding some vintage discs from Biggie, Le Tigre, Dillinger and plenty more.

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Two decades ago, new albums from Notorious B.I.G., Le Tigre, Rheostatics, Dillinger Escape Plan 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):


Notorious B.I.G.
Born Again

On the intro to this posthumous CD, slain rapper Christopher Wallace is heard saying that in 10 years, all he wants is to be “just living … but I don’t think I’m gonna make it.” Prophetic it may be, but it’s hardly surprising. For the most part, Wallace — aka Biggie Smalls, aka Notorious B.I.G. — made a career of predicting his demise (his first disc was titled Ready To Die, after all).

But even taken with a grain of salt, that opening quote is the most authentic moment on this sub-par, barrel-scraping release from his mentor, collaborator and homeboy Puff Daddy. Although a handful of tracks featuring Biggie have been issued since his drive-by shooting death in Los Angeles a couple of years back, this is the first full-length release. And surprisingly, unlike Biggie’s killed-in-action counterpart Tupac Shakur, who reportedly left hundreds of songs in the can, it seems the well of untapped Biggie material is already running dry.

Most of Born Again’s 17 songs sound like obviously unfinished tracks. Typically, Biggie contributes just a verse or chorus in his surprisingly graceful, marble-mouthed style, while a lengthy guest list of hip-hop stars — Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, Lil’ Kim, Ice Cube, Mobb Deep, K-Ci & Jo-Jo, Redman, Method Man and plenty more — try to take up the slack and keep a party vibe going in his absence. Sometimes, like when Puffy nicks Duran Duran’s Notorious for his tribute tune Notorious B.I.G., it almost works. But most of the time, Born Again has the vibe of one of those creepy duet-with-the-dead albums. And the final spoken-word track, which features Wallace’s mother Violetta painfully wishing her son had never become a rapper — only to be cut off in mid-speech like some rambling nobody at an awards show — manages to be touching and disrespectful at once. Much like the rest of this unfortunate and inessential offering.


Rheostatics
The Story Of Harmelodia

Once upon a time, there was a quirky band called Rheostatics. They wrote funny songs about hockey, The Group Of Seven and other Canadian things. One day, they decided to write a concept album based on a fairy tale by guitarist Dave Bidini. It was a story like Alice In Wonderland, about two kids who fall through a hole to an underground land where they meet a composer named Drumstein, learn to play the Wingophone, and create a Bee Sky Opus which sends them home and shows how music unites people. The band worked very hard for two years, writing sunny, whimsical orch-pop ditties that remind you of The Beatles, Beach Boys, XTC and Olivia Tremor Control. Then they played them all over the country. And they all lived happily ever after.


Jethro Tull
J-Tull Dot Com

Before you start imagining cyberpunk versions of Aqualung, let’s get one thing straight: The Web-site title is the only concession to the modern world on this comeback disc from Ian Anderson and his hippie folk-prog outfit Jethro Tull. In fact, this 15-song set actually takes a few steps away from modern rock. In the Tull catalog, Dot Com sits closer to the rustic Songs From The Wood than the heavy rock of Thick As A Brick, thanks to Anderson’s ever-twittering Ren-Fayre flute, an endless succession of jangly acoustic guitars and keyboards you haven’t heard since the last Yes album. Oh, it’s pleasant enough, but even fans may be reminded of another Tull title: Too Old To Rock ’N’ Roll … Too Young To Die.


Le Tigre
Le Tigre

Just like Muddy Waters begat Chuck Berry and The Rolling Stones, there is a clear, unbroken line linking the Girl Groups of the ’60s with the Grrrl Groups of the ’90s — from The Ronettes through The Runaways and on to Bikini Kill. On the debut disc from her cheeky downtown New York trio Le Tigre, former Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna gleefully walks that line from end to end — and even crosses it a few times. Starting with equal portions of Shangri-La’s sass, Joan Jett riffs and punk-rock power, Hanna and co. layer in Devo-ted drum machines, electro synths and even samples and scratches to create groovy hybrid tracks that can do the mashed potato, rock you like a candy cane and ask the musical question, “Who took the ram from the ramalamadingdong?” You go, grrrls.


Dillinger Escape Plan
Calculating Infinity

If you took sci-fi speed demons Voivod, force-fed them diet pills and espresso — and then set their hair on fire — they might play with half the blinding ferocity that erupts from this New Jersey avant-metal quintet’s debut. Dissonant blast-furnace riffs, punishing jackhammer drums, dentist drill guitar lines and lung-searing vocals closer to Sam Kinison than Sam Cooke are all arc-welded here into infinitely elaborate works that ignore musical rules, zipping from Zappa-esque prog-rock to jazz fusion to death metal to noise rock with lightning-fast precision. Without a doubt, this is the most intellectual metal album of the year. But don’t be fooled; it’ll still rip off the top of your skull and gnaw your brain like a zombie pit bull. Escape? Forget it, bub.


SIANspheric
Else

“My God, it’s full of stars!” marvels astronaut Dave as he confronts a black hole in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Talk about the perfect sample to open this latest disc by Hamilton’s SIANspheric, a band that puts the space in space-rock like nobody else. Although their lineup is less stable than plutonium — they’ve lost three members in four years, including a bassist who vanished mid-tour — their sound is as timeless as the universe: Endless ambient drones, solar-flare guitars, hypnotically languid melodies and slow shoegazing grooves that progress with the speed and grace of the moon. Alternately hot as a super-nova and cold as a Martian winter, these seven tracks — three remixes and some live tapes, including a molasses-thick version of Teenage Head’s Shag Shack — are a space odyssey you’ll marvel at.


Skydiggers
Still Restless: The Lost Tapes

Something old and something new from Toronto roots-popsters Skydiggers. Most of these 15 tunes were recorded just before their second album, 1992’s Restless. But since that’s been out of print for years, they decided to release these remixed tracks. Fans will be glad they did: These unvarnished songs — the smouldering Slow Burnin’ Fire, the jangly rock of Accusations, the tongue-and-groove harmonies of Don’t Blame It On Me — are imbued with a rough-hewn intimacy and melancholy that never goes out of style. Perhaps Timeless would be a better title.


Five
Invincible

This British teen-pop quintet don’t want to be called a “boy band;” they prefer “lad band.” Whatever. Call it what you will, it’s clear the boys — sorry, lads — are cut from the same cloth as teen brethren BSB, 98° and ’N Sync. J, Abs, Ritchie, Scott and Sean have the waist-deep harmonies, the watered-down hip-hop backing tracks, the touch-of-metal guitars for street cred. Here and there, they’ve even got a decent song; How Do Ya Feel wouldn’t be too out of place on Beck’s last CD (although you suspect their tongues aren’t as far in cheek as his would be). Not that it matters; what ultimately counts is whether they’re cool enough and cute enough for the little girls. Maybe if they changed their name to the Backstreet Lads


Unrest
Malcolm X Park
Kustom Karnal Blackxploitation

Does the name Mark E. Robinson mean anything? Didn’t think so. The only song of his you might know is World Cup Fever, a minor hit years back for Air Miami. If that rings a bell — and I admit it’s a big if — you might be interested in these reissues from his previous outfit Unrest. The N.Y.C. combo dealt in the quirky, early ’90s art-punk typified by the likes of Pavement or Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Singer/guitarist Robinson was the classic example of a talented misfit who lived in his parents’ basement, writing eccentric little ditties and recording them on the cheap. But on these reissued discs — first released in ’88 and ’90 — he shows he was ahead of his time, spitting out songs that toggle between the skewed eccentricity of Stephen Malkmus and the garage-rawk skronk of JSBX. If you’re looking for the missing link between Slanted And Enchanted and Orange — I’ll presume those titles ring a bell — Unrest should be on your want list.


Flabby
Modern Tunes For Everybody

Fire up the bubble machine in your space-age bachelor pad: Italian kitsch-pop trio Flabby are the new soundtrack to your cocktail party. With a bent elbow, a raised eyebrow and tongue firmly planted in cheek, these lads dish up course after course of appetizing go-go lounge fare like so many musical canapes; Cheek-A-Boom, whose title pretty much describes this CD’s rhythm-machine backbeat; Blue Song, whose lyrics, in total, are “F-L-A-Double-B-Y;” and Mambo Italiano, whose zippy vibe you might recall from Hugh Grant’s Mickey Blue Eyes. With novelty tunes full of goofball lyrics suavely crooned, waxy keyboards cheesily played and Latin rhythms chintzily replicated, Flabby are this year’s OMC. How bizarre.


Appliance
Manual

Remove CD (A) from case (B). Insert CD (A) into player (C). Press play button (D). Listen. You should hear British space-rock trio Appliance (E). If CD (A) and player (C) are functioning properly, Appliance (E) should resemble a German synth-rock outfit (F) playing Doors songs. By the fourth song, Aquaplane (G), you should be able to notice that the band’s home-made effects and instruments (H) create a hypnotic, otherworldly mood that interlocks precisely with singer/guitarist James Brooks (I), who has a voice that combines the world-weariness of Lou Reed (J) and Iggy Pop (K). At this point, Appliance (E) should be producing state of relaxed pleasure in listener (L). If this effect is not achieved, remove CD (A) from player (C), clean wax from ears (M&N) and repeat process as required.


Stereo Total
My Melody

When they pick the first band to send into space, it should be Stereo Total — and I mean that as a compliment. This German quartet led by duo/couple Françoise Cactus and Brezel Göring gives a whole new meaning to World Music, singing in five languages (English, French, Italian, German and Japanese) and stylistically raiding the pop-culture supermarket for everything from Japanese go-go and British Merseybeat to American surf-pop. It’s a bit like Marlene Dietrich singing Flying Lizards tunes at karaoke night in the Star Wars cantina, except weirder — and I mean that as a compliment, too.


DJ Vadim
USSR: Life From The Other Side

From Russia with groove comes Andre Gurov, the Soviet-born, London-raised DJ who goes by the handle Vadim. But in his musical world, USSR apparently stands for Unusual Sounds and Smooth Rhythms. And on his playfully relaxed debut disc, both are as plentiful as snowcones in Siberia in February. The former comes courtesy of a perfect balance between quirky spoken-word samples and tasty raps from several talented vocalists; the latter is supplied solely by Vadim, whose scratches flutter like hummingbirds over midtempo hip-hop beats and simple melodies. Together, they threaten to foment a new Russian revolution.


John Lurie
Down By Law / Stranger Than Paradise

In the same way cruddy Hollywood shlockbusters crowd indie films out of theatres, their crass, classic-rock companion CDs shove small film scores off the racks. Well, score two for the little guys with these newly issued soundtracks from classic Jim Marmusch flicks. Composed by Lounge Lizards’ king saxman John Lurie (who also acted in both pix), these works are like Jarmusch’s films — bohemian, blackly comic and slightly surreal. The jazzy score for the ’86 jailhouse-escape romp Down By Law (co-starring Tom Waits and Roberto Benigni) highlights Lurie’s familiar noirish sax and snaky exotic rhythms. The disc for ’85’s Stranger Than Paradise is a more sombre and elegant affair, starring a string quartet that offsets the shabby-chic world of this weird road trip flick. One quibble: The extra tracks from other Lurie projects are welcome, but film dialogue — especially Waits’ hipster raps and Benigni’s malapropisms like “I ham a good egg” — would have been better. Of course, now you have a reason to watch the movies again.


Being John Malkovich
Various Artists

Normally, I don’t bother with the many soundtracks that come out weeks (or sometimes, even months) after their films. But this companion disc to Spike Jonze’s brilliantly twisted pic — about a puppeteer who finds a portal into the titular actor’s brain — is as endearingly weird as the film. The angelic, haunting strains of the new Björk track Amphibian begin and end the album. Between are a dozen orchestral vignettes by composer Carter Burwell, each brimming with minor-key gloom and ominous rumblings; a sly trip-hop ditty whose refrain is the word “Malkovich”; snippets from the film’s demented script; an audio clip of Burwell explaining the plot to a baffled orchestra; and even two video trailers. It’ll get inside your brain.


Bauhaus
Gotham

Bela Lugosi’s still dead. But proto-goth quartet Bauhaus, who first broke up back in 1983, have risen from the grave. And the live set Gotham, fittingly recorded in New York during their 1998 Resurrection Tour, proves the old vampires have plenty of bite. On these 18 tracks (including covers of T. Rex’s Telegram Sam, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Dead Can Dance’s Severance), Peter Murphy’s vocals still creak like a grave robber prying open Iggy’s coffin, while the band’s grim, ghostly sheets of sound swirl like the dry ice fog that undoubtedly blanketed the stage. Sure, this double-disc set does drag at times — Bela Lugosi clocks in at 13 anemic minutes. But for fans, it’ll be the ultimate night of the living dead.


DJ Revolution
R2K, Version 1.0

New York wax spinner Revolution is a DJ in every sense of the word — along with working the wheels of steel at clubs, he hosts the World Famous Wake Up! Show, the largest syndicated hip-hop radio show in the U.S. On this debut disc, he uses his sure hand and a sharp needle to slice and dice his way through a mega-mix of 17 tracks from the likes of Kool Keith’s Dr. Dooom and Eminem. But Rev’s turntable sorcery is in full effect on his own tracks, which combine his free-range sampling — everything from jazz to South Park’s Cartman — with sparse, kicking beats and virtuoso scratching into mind-melting hip-hop excursions that take turntablism to the next level. Revolution? He might want to consider Evolution.


Brutal Truth
Goodbye Cruel World!

Trust New York grindcore veterans Brutal Truth to make their parting shot with a bazooka. After issuing three albums and two EPs of relentless, pulverizing metal in eight years, Brutal Truth pulled the plug last year. To clear out the vaults, they’ve issued this two-CD set with 56 tracks (count ’em!) — 23 from live shows, along with 33 rarities, b-sides and covers of everyone from The Melvins (Zodiac) and Black Sabbath (Cornucopia) to Sun Ra (It’s After The End Of The World) and even Queen (We Will Rock You). And of course, you get multiple versions of their explosive three-second hit Collateral Damage — the shortest video ever to air on MTV (I’m not making that up). If you’re a fan, you’ll want this; if you weren’t, see what you missed.


Funkmaster Flex &
Big Kap

The Tunnel

The Tunnel is a nefarious New York nightclub — kind of a hip-hop Studio 54 where, if you believe police reports, drug use, sexual assaults and violence are as much a part of the scene as the DJ booth. And in that booth every Sunday, you’ll find Funkmaster Flex and Big Kap working the turntables. On this 21-track mix album, the duo recreate a night at the club (minus the drive-by shootings and crack dealers), from the scene outside in the line to the cavernous, pounding grooves and pitch-black gangster-rap lyrics of these exclusive tracks from a stellar lineup including Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Dre, LL Cool J, Ruff Ryders and plenty of others. It’s a nice way to visit The Tunnel without actually having to go there.