Two decades ago, new albums from Nas, Raekwon, Mike Ness 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):
Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows
World Wrestling Federation: The Music Volume 4
WCW Mayhem: The Music
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls — Let’s get ready to rumble! Tonight’s main event is an all-star, inter-league battle royal between members of the WWF and WCW, with the Pop Chart Championship Belt on the line.
In this corner is Brett (Hitman) Hart: Wrestling With Shadows, the radio-friendly soundtrack to a Gemini Award-winning Canadian documentary. Backing up Brett are plenty of CanCon heavyweights — Bryan Adams, Moist, Econoline Crush, Rascalz — along with up-and-comers like DDT, Gob and BTK. Obviously, versatility is this disc’s greatest strength; metal, punk, pop, rap, it has all the moves, not to mention Brett spewin’ between-song wrasslin’ witticisms like, “You survive by taking the pain in.” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that …
Meanwhile, in this corner, we have World Wrestling Federation: The Music Volume 4. Hey, wait a minute! Where are all the WWF stars? Whaddaya mean they aren’t here? Oh, I see — even though their names are all over the cover, most of them never leave the dressing room; this disc contains only their pile-driving entrance themes, padded out from 30-second ditties to three and four-minute songs that even the faithful will have trouble sitting through. Watch out; these suckers will put you under faster than a sleeper — except, of course, for Mr. Ass’s theme song, which features the unforgettable refrain: “I’m an ass man.” And they say wrestlers aren’t good role models.
Finally, over in this corner there’s WCW Mayhem: The Music. Now these boys came to play: They’ve shelled out big bucks for wrasslin’ themed tracks from real rockers such as Metallica, Kid Rock, Insane Clown Posse, Slayer and Megadeth, whose Crush ’Em is Goldberg’s new theme song. Between the punishing metal and rap, there’s crowd noise, interviews, ringside commentary and snippets of action — “Oooh, that’s gotta hurt!” — that give Mayhem the power and momentum to pin the competition.
What better time than the eve of the millennium for such a prophetically titled album? And on Nastradamus, his second CD in six months, quietly intense New York rapper Nas makes a few predictions of his own: Dry oceans, killing fields, global apocalypse, that sort of thing. But it isn’t all bad news; as usual, Nas spends half his time wrestling with the demons of thuggery and the other half praising the angels of wisdom with his nimble verbal gymnastics over a bed of simple, soulful grooves. One of the few forward-thinking rappers on the scene today, Nas proves he has the vision for the next century.
These Wu-Tangers and their names; first ODB (if you don’t know what it stands for, I’m not going to tell you) wanted to be called Big Baby Jesus. Now Raekwon has dubbed himself Chef Raekwon on this latest solo CD. Hopefully, he doesn’t mean that in the South Park sense. Whatever — either way, he never really gets cooking on Immobilarity. Although he steps outside the Clan camp, using outside producers including Timbaland, Raekwon still leans too heavily on the kind of dark, skittery beats and sparse, spookhouse piano he could have got from RZA. And his rushed, breathless style and overuse of unfunny skits explain why he remains one of the Wu-Tang’s lesser lights. Looks like he could use a little Chef Aid.
Los Grandes Exitos En Español
Everybody’s favourite hemp-happy hip-hoppers head south of the border — or at least back to the barrio — with this bizarre set featuring their greatest hits re-recorded in Spanish. But while it probably seemed like a good idea after a few brainers, in reality it’s kind of a burn. For every track that works — Loco En El Coco has just as nice a ring to it as Insane In The Brain — there are plenty that lose something in the blunted translation. And the sole new track, the loping Siempre Peligroso, doesn’t exactly get you fired up about their new album due early next year. Go buy a Molotov CD instead.
Under The Influences
After spending much of his career apparently trying to sound like a British punk, Social Distortion leader Mike Ness has spent the last few years clearly embracing his Yankee rock and country roots. The latest step in this musical repatriation is the cover album Under The Influences, Ness’s second album in under a year and a worthy followup to this summer’s Cheating At Solitaire. With his usual scraggly voice (is it just me, or is he starting to sound like Shane MacGowan from The Pogues?) and scrappy delivery, Ness and his touring lineup blast their way through countrified classics from Bobby Fuller (I Fought The Law), ol’ Hank (House Of Gold) and Merle Haggard (Big Iron). Welcome home, Mike.
Darrin’s Coconut Ass: Live From Omaha
Buyer beware: This eight-track EP is only a live album in the sense that it was recorded during an onstage, after-gig jam session without overdubs. Not that I’m complaining; this all-covers novelty is a treat from starter’s pistol to finishing line. Not surprisingly, these ska-punks divide their tracks between skanky reggae (Peter Tosh’s DownPresser Man, Specials’ Nite Klub) and old-school punk and new wave (Buzzcocks’ You Say You Don’t Love Me, The Police’s Man In The Suitcase). Still, who’da-thunkit surprises like The Who’s The Kids Are Alright, The Cure’s Just Like Heaven and Bad Company’s Feel Like Making Love overcome any false advertising. It may not be live, but it’s lively enough.
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Mr. Ripley star Matt Damon displays a new talent of his own — singing! — on the soundtrack to his new psychological thriller. And not just any song, either; he tackles the classic ballad My Funny Valentine, crooning it soft and low in an androgynous Chet Baker whisper while the Guy Barker quintet quietly swings. How does he do? Well, let’s just say he shouldn’t quit his day job. But if he isn’t exactly Chet — and after all, who is? — there are some legitimate jazz classics here from Miles Davis (Nature Boy), Charlie Parker (Ko-Ko) and Dizzy Gillespie (The Champ). Not to mention Gabriel Yared’s original score of eerie, haunting melodies and stabbing Bernard Hermann-inspired accents. A talented lot, in all.
Remember seeing these guys in the local bar listings a few weeks back? Maybe you do, and maybe — like me — you skipped their gig because you’d never heard of them. Well, turns out they’re the new band from former Ned’s Atomic Dustbin vocalist John Penney. Turns out they’re also pretty decent, if this five-song debut EP is any sign — meaty, beaty Britpop with giant swaths of fuzzy, post-grunge guitar and Penney’s keen sense of melody. A full album is due in the new year. Next time, let’s hope they give us a little warning before they show up again.
In A Different City
This Chicago trio live in a different city, all right — one somewhere about midway between Beefheartville and Zappatown, judging from the ’60s-style dada-freakout of their debut CD. To get there, just follow your ears — all the signposts are here: The skronking saxophones and atonal sheets of sound, the wild-man skin-pounding and free-jazz format, the orchestral weirdness and instrumental tomfoolery. Sure, it’s kind of an out-of-the-way little juncture, but it’s real nice place to visit.
No wonder so much contemporary dance music is so kaleidoscopically over the top; it has to compete with all the whirling lights, laser shows and bells and whistles of the disco floor. But London duo Dynamic Syncopation don’t play that, homey. Johnny Cuba and Loop Professor take a less-is-more approach on this debut full-length. Their laid-back, after-hours sound leaves you plenty of room to groove — tunes float along on sparse, head-nodding rhythms and soulfully funky bass lines, with only the occasional rhyming rapper, moaning diva, skillful scratch or oddball sample to keep you from drifting off on their magic carpet of sound. All the lasers in discoland can’t compete with that.
Don’t Wake Me Up
Lo-fi has never sounded more hi-fi. Washington’s Phil Elverum — the one-man band who records under the name The Microphones — has conjured one of the most intriguing bedroom-rock albums of the year with this psychedelic, dreamy debut. Like some junkyard Brian Wilson or Olivia Tremor Control, Elverum conjures forth bizarrely beautiful pop from the unlikeliest kitchen sinkful of sources: buzzing amps, hissing tape and rumbling feedback are as much a part of his music as traditional instruments such as guitar and drums. Coupled with his intimate, skittish vocals and rambling, nonconformist songcraft, it results in a captivating work of shabby elegance and mumbly eloquence that probably cost less to record than Beck spent on his new fringe vest.
To The Innocent
Rob Crow used to lead indie legends Heavy Vegetable, who were renowned for the offbeat loveliness of their distinctly unique brand of experimental pop. On To The Innocent, the second CD from his post-Vegetable outfit Thingy, Crow flies in a similar direction, setting his joyfully silly lyrics — the dreamy pop ballad Big Dumb Animal gets by with three lines: “I’m an imbecile, imbecile / I’m a big, dumb animal / Put my fingers in the fan” — next to intricately melodic guitar jangles and exuberantly propulsive drumming. Crow is the kind of guy who could write a song about Top Ramen, Star Wars or his neighbour’s dog and still create pop perfection — and in fact, he does exactly that here.
I took one look at the umlaut-bearing handle, black-humour title and chilly snowbound landscape of the CD cover and figured I was in for some sort of sick, European death metal. Not even close; this San Francisco Bay-area foursome are as indie-rock as they come, with tunes that bounce along on choppy, angular riffs, bungee-cord slide guitars and talky, slackerish vocals. Not that they can’t raise an unholy ruckus now and then; these boys definitely aren’t scared to plunge headlong into Sonic Youth-style squalls of explosive noise when the occasion calls for it. But on the whole, you get the sense Überhund are more concerned with mentality than metal. Süits me.
From The Blue House
She got signed to a major label during Alanis-mania while still a teenager. Then her debut album got lost in the shuffle during the hoopla over Fiona Apple. Now, a few years older and a whole lot wiser, Lauren Hoffman finally gets her much-deserved moment in the spotlight with the compelling From The Blue House. With a style that falls somewhere between Fiona’s boho fragility, Alanis’s hippie soulfulness and Liz Phair’s sharp-tongued delivery, Hoffman’s hand-woven, acoustic guitar-driven songs pack a whole lotta emotion and power into a fetching, hummable package. As long as Morissette or Apple don’t rush-release new CDs this week, Hoffman’s House should have the place to itself.
In an ideal world, there would be no boundaries between musicians: Miles Davis, say, might have teamed with Tortoise and Roni Size, with Brian Eno and Lee (Scratch) Perry co-producing. Of course, that could never happen — but Him’s Sworn Eyes is what it might sound like if it did. Led by drummer and bassist Doug Scharin of Chicago post-rockers June Of 44, Sworn Eyes is a genre-spanning fusion of experimentalism and tradition: jazzy horns, edgy violins and African hand percussion share space with skittering drum ’n’ bass loops, robot beatboxes and dubby production. Spacious, lush and joyfully unclassifiable, Him is something the post-rockers and the jazz crowd can agree on. At least that’s one boundary removed.
Pop culture loves winners — you don’t have to look beyond Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous to know that. But if Australian art-pop outfit New Waver had their way, we’d all be watching Lifestyles Of The Poor And Anonymous, starring a cast of losers, mental patients, misfits and failures. The band’s 11th release The Defeated, could be the soundtrack. Its 13 unlucky tracks feature real-life accounts of suicide, depression and cat killing, nicked Negativland-style from medical films, documentaries and talk radio, then set against electronica soundscapes — from upbeat drum ’n’ bass to sweeping, shimmering ambient — whose joyful textures belie the pitch-black content. When you hear the tale of a man who castrated himself with an electric drill, you wonder if The Defeated is art or voyeurism. Either way, it’s as mesmerizing as a car wreck.
It’s Harder Now
“I’m a soul survivor,” boasts Wilson Pickett, and man, he ain’t foolin’. More than 30 years (!) after the heyday of In The Midnight Hour, Land Of 1,000 Dances and Mustang Sally, Pickett is still Wicked on It’s Harder Now. It’s his first album in more than a decade, but you’d never know it — his soul-powered voice has lost none of its vim, vigour and virility. Likewise, these tunes sound like the product of days gone by with their tight, punchy horn lines, chicken-picking guitars and smoove-groove R&B lines. There’s no loops, no drum machines and no samples — just 100 per cent soul from a soul survivor.
The Wisdom Of Harry
Stars Of Super 8
This trippy U.K. outfit are only a duo — singer Peter Astor and instrumentalist David Sheppard — but you’d never tell from their debut release Stars Of Super 8. In fact, you’d never know these 13 tracks were even the work of one band, never mind two guys. Vocal tracks like Shotgun and Disney Queen have the loping slacker vibe and stoner lyrics of vintage Beck — except for the fact that one of them features vocals that sound exactly like Ray Davies. And when there’s no singing, which is most of the time, things get even weirder. Echoes of Fantastic Plastic Machine, Tom Waits and Gomez surface here and there, all combined into a unique gumbo that proves two heads really are better than one.
My Fluffy Period
Peggen is actually the nom du disque of Swedish popster Per Erik Gustav Franchell. But for a one-man band, on this debut EP he sounds like two or three guys at least — specifically, Ziggy-era David Bowie, late-period Jim Morrison, and even Warren Zevon howling Werewolves Of London. He channels all of them at various times during these five tracks of reflective, midtempo Brit-style pop laced with snappy guitars and sweeping glam choruses. This EP is meant as a teaser for an upcoming full-length; consider me teased.