Two decades ago, albums and compilations from The Sopranos, Jesus Lizard, Veal 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):
Now here’s an offer you can’t refuse: The soundtrack album to the acclaimed American Mob dramedy. Appropriately, most of these classic, um, hits have a wiseguy element to them (in every sense of the word). There’s Frank Sinatra reminiscing his way through It Was a Very Good Year; Bob Dylan reminding us that we all Gotta Serve Somebody; Jersey boys Bruce Springsteen and Little Steven (who also acts in the show) serving up State Trooper and Inside of Me, respectively; a few macho melodies from the likes of Bo Diddley (I’m a Man) and even thematically fitting (if culturally off-base) Britpop from Nick Lowe (The Beast in Me) and Elvis Costello (Complicated Shadows). My fave, though, has to be Alabama 3’s theme song Woke Up This Morning. It would be criminal to fuhgeddabowdit.
On July 1 of 1999, 10 years to the day after their first show, Chicago sludge-rock monsters Jesus Lizard opted for self-extinction. Not surprisingly, this explosive, confrontational foursome decided to go out literally with a Bang: A 20-song compilation of singles tracks, live cuts, covers (including two Trio songs!), bootlegged tunes and rarities from the Lizard’s decade of mayhem, bloodshed and onstage nudity. While the quality of the recordings varies, the music never wavers — Duane Denison’s shrieking guitar, Mac McNeilly’s primordial pounding and David Yow’s monkey-boy yowl are relentless from start to finish. To crib a line from Hunter Thompson, they stomped on the terra and many people feared them. They will be missed.
Simon & Garfunkel
The Best of …
Some compilations are aimed at hardcore fans, the ones who will shell out again for a bunch of songs they already have just to get an unreleased track or two. Others, like this greatest hits package from folk-pop kings Simon and Garfunkel, are for folks who just want all the wheat and none of the chaff. Here, there are no B-sides, no long-lost tracks, no new songs, just all the classic hits that amount to a virtual soundtrack to the ’60s — The Sound of Silence, Homeward Bound, I Am a Rock, 59th Street Bridge Song, Mrs. Robinson, The Boxer, Cecilia and, of course, Bridge Over Troubled Water. If you don’t already own a Simon and Garfunkel album, this is the only one you’ll ever need.
Greatest Hits III
No, that’s not a typo in the band name; the + is there because many of the tunes on this third best-of set are collaborations from Queen’s surviving members and a variety of vocalists trying to fill the gold lamé platform boots of late singer Freddie Mercury. Few succeed. Elton John comes closest with the bombastic Show Must Go On, but George Michael’s Somebody To Love is a poor fit, and Wyclef Jean’s remix of Another One Bites The Dust more or less, well, bites. No surprise the best moments are the few leftovers featuring Freddie, from his duet with David Bowie on Under Pressure to his version of the classic Great Pretender. This isn’t so much the best of Queen as the rest of Queen.
Boney M. 2000
20th Century Hits
In my book, Boney M. might very sell be the cheesiest disco act of all time — which is, of course, another way of saying they’re the ultimate disco act. Now, the co-ed creators of classics like Rasputin and Rivers of Babylon try to stave off their expiration date by repackaging themselves for the new millennium, enlisting cutting-edge mixmasters such as Sash! and Doug Laurent to slice and dice their old tunes into megamixes for today’s club kids. It’s crassly commercial, sure, but remember, this is the band that issued a disco Christmas album. And unlike other oldsters trying to act hip (are you listening, Engelbert?), Boney M. are right at home on the dance floor. After all, they were among the first to recut their songs into extended dance mixes back in the ’70s. Hmm. Turns out that along with being the cheesiest disco act, they may also be the savviest.
Stompin’ Tom Connors
Move Along with Stompin’ Tom
Musical trends come and go — hell, whole musical genres come and go — but Stompin’ Tom Connors is eternal. Frankly, I have no idea how many albums he’s put out over the years (and I suspect he doesn’t either). But in a way, it doesn’t matter. Every tune he’s written, every show he’s played, every album he’s issued, they’re all part of one grand work: Tom’s never-ending song of Canada. And Move Along fits in just fine — it’s got the acoustic two-step party numbers (Dominoes and Dice), the tunes about our home and native land (Confederation Bridge, Long Gone to the Yukon), and the oddball characters (Big Joe Mufferaw). Best of all, it’s got the unmistakable sound of Dr. Tom’s boot-heel whacking away on one of his Stompin’ Boards. What’s more Canadian than that?
Along with one of the oddest names in show biz, Meat Loaf has had one of the weirdest careers: Cast member of Hair and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, operatic rock star, dramatic actor and, more recently, author. Which makes him perfect for the TV concert series Storytellers, in which performers talk about their songs and career between numbers. Not surprisingly, M.L. doesn’t disappoint, offering up tales of his early days — meeting collaborator Jim Steinman, auditioning for perplexed record executives, recording his career-defining Bat out of Hell album — amid crisp versions of Paradise by the Dashboard Light and Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad. Heck, he even explains what “that” is in I’ll Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That). The only thing he doesn’t do is discuss his Rocky Horror days. Then again, his old boss, chrome-domed Rocky creator Richard O’Brien, isn’t dwelling in the past either. At least, not his own past. The former Riff Raff does a time warp back to the torch song era on Absolute O’Brien, jazzily crooning love ballads in front of a backdrop of smooth pop wallpaper. Of course, O’Brien is a long way from your average tunesmith — these demonically demented ditties have all the smooth malevolence of lounge numbers from hell, with lines like “maybe I’m a demon, maybe I’m just dreamin’.” And as he suavely intones, “let me be your Incubus of love,” the words rocky horror show can’t help but spring to mind.
Songs in the Key of E
Super Colossal Smash Hits of the ’90s
When it comes to guitar heroes, Mavericks’ axeman Nick Kane obviously prefers Duane Eddy to Eddie Van Halen, The Ventures to The Velvet Underground, and Dick Dale to Dimebag Darrell. Kane’s devotion to the greats of yesteryear is clear from the descending, Pipeline surf-rock lick that opens his fabulous solo disc Songs in the Key of E, an album that revives the classic twangy instrumentals of the ’60s. Backed by a motley crew of members of Johnny Cash’s band, Prairie Oyster and Los Straitjackets, Kane tosses off enough low-end rumbling and top-string butterfly runs in these dozen tunes to score Pulp Fiction 2. Between, he leaves enough room for excursions into fleet-fingered rockabilly, chicken-picking country, B.B. King blues, Jimi Hendrix voodoo jive and Chuck Berry riff-rock — enough to make him a guitar hero in his own right. To get the other side of the Kane, check out his more reined-in playing with rootsmeisters The Mavericks. Their greatest hits set has four new tracks (including a zippy, ’60s-flavoured take on Cat Stevens’ Here She Comes Now) along with old faves such as Dance the Night Away and the Tex-Mex spice of All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down, featuring Texas Tornado accordion master Flaco Jimenez — another legend in his own right.
Erstwhile Winnipeg guitar slinger and Sarah McLachlan sideman Luke Doucet is one of the most talented six-stringers to emerge from the local scene — his stylish fretwork is subtle, textured and utterly unique. Which is the best and worst thing about Tilt O’Whirl, the second helping from Veal , the offbeat alt-pop trio he shares with drummer and fellow ex-Pegger Brad (Chang) Meadmore. As ambitious as Doucet’s songwriting is, his spry, clever pop and untutored voice — sort of a cross between Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne and Ben Folds — can’t match his nimble fingers. Case in point: Po Black Child ruins compellingly swampy, noirish blues licks by setting them against a lame gag from The Jerk. Doucet needs to beef up his songwriting a tad if he truly wants Veal to cook.
Fashion Or Not
Fashion, definitely. At least on the surface. Phunky Data’s Kiko and Olivier Raymond are that most trendy of musical entities — a French disco duo. But their debut album suggests they are cut from a more subdued cloth than contemporaries like Daft Punk and Air. Fashion Or Not’s minimalist funk flows gently by on aquatic, assembly-line grooves, gently chirping synthesizes and melodic mantras that seep slowly into your mind, gradually warming you from the inside out like a favourite sweater. Fashion or not, it’s a pretty perfect fit.
When Gooseflesh vocalist Kristian Lampila roars, “My brain is imploding!,” you don’t doubt it for a minute. This debut release from his Swedish grind-metal outfit is a head-crushing affair all right. Vaguely Slayerish but minus the speed-demonology, Gooseflesh forge grim, solid black metal from molten guitar riffs, anvil-heavy drumbeats and Lampila’s blowtorch vocals — there’s even a song called Sore Throat — and pound out their creations like demented blacksmiths until they create lethal weapons of sonic destruction. You might want to put on a helmet before you spin this sucker.
The Abba Generation
I wish we was making this up, but sadly, it’s all true. Yes, the A in A*Teens stands for Abba, and yes, they are teens. Marie, Sara, Dhani and Amit are all 15 or 16-year-old Swedes whose act consists of covering their famous Swedish predecessors’ greatest hits — Dancing Queen, Mamma Mia, S.O.S., and so on — and dressing them up in contemporary disco duds, right down to the thumping bass drums and cheap synths. Admittedly, they do a fair job of it; these songs are brimming with peppy harmonies and fresh-faced pop sunshine. That leaves just one question: Why?
Please Excuse All The Blood
I know next to nothing about this impressive indie-punk foursome, but it ain’t all my fault — they broke up more than three years ago before issuing this retrospective. Still, I wish I’d known about them back when; thanks to singer Tracy Wilson’s shriekingly powerful yet emotionally fragile voice and the band’s churning, moody punk-metal, Dahlia Seed remind you of a less sleazy version of Thalia Zedek’s Come. Not to mention that they’re the only band I can think of who cover Voivod’s Missing Sequences. Just one of those cases where you don’t know what you got till it’s gone.
Few bands embody their names as perfectly as Portland space rockers Yume Bitsu, whose handle is Japanese for “dream beats.” And even fewer personify their album cover art as exactly this trio does on its eponymously titled sophomore CD, whose front features a shot of menacing storm clouds on the horizon. Like Mogwai, Sonic Youth and other guitar-noise experimenters, the mostly instrumental YB conjure up slow, drifting waves of sound that hang ringing in the air — and then gradually coalesce into brooding shadows that explode with thunderous sonic fury before dissipating back into misty remains. This is the kind of album to listen to in your bedroom on headphones late at night on low volume. Hey, don’t take my word for it; the band say so in the CD book. And it’s obvious they know what they’re talking about.
Out is In
Most electronica artists are always racing to get ahead of the curve with more futuristic grooves, spacier synths and increasingly robotic rhythms. But like the tortoise racing against the hare, S.O.L.O. — aka Michael Wells — knows that slow and steady wins the race. So, on Out is In, he spends much of his time relaxing and looking backward, retrofitting his cutting-edge drum-machine beats and buzzing keyboards with dollops of syrupy Mantovani strings, soothing orchestrations and (in a moment reminiscent of Moby’s Play) funky old jazz and blues samples. The resulting grooves are too meditative and thoughtful to be your usual aerobic dance-floor workouts; their cinematic sweep and texture is more suited for the chill-out room. Very far out — and very in.
Conversions in Metric
There are few things in life more annoying than a natural-born talent — especially a teenage one. And there are few teens as musically gifted as Scott August, an electronica artist from Kelowna whose nom du disque is French Paddleboat. Although just 19, he’s already released four indie albums of his semi-ambient, semi-organic sound constructs. As if that precocious achievement weren’t enough to cheese us off, his fifth disc Conversions in Metric — his first release on CD — is undeniably superb. Based around loping beatboxes rhythms and off-kilter loops of vibes, chimes and woodwinds, August’s fluid, dreamy style carries the listener along like the aquatic transport he’s named himself after — and earns him a place alongside masters like Aphex Twin and µ-ziq. If I weren’t so flabbergasted, I’d want to kick his butt.
This sampler is subtitled The Secret World of Alternative Nuggets — and as any garage-rock aficionado worth his copy of Count Five’s Psychotic Reaction knows, Nuggets is the operative word. Back in the ’70s, that was the title of a seminal series of LPs (ask your parents) that collected long-lost garage and punk-rock gems from the ’60s. That same sensibility is at play on Pspyched (read: Spiked), which features 14 spaced-out, guitar-driven hits that never were, from the sun- and reverb-drenched acoustipop of Polyphemus and the Velvet-y swirl of Radial Spangle to the more contemporary noise-rock syncopation of Mercury Rev and the New York No Wave skronk of The Del Byzanteens (whose lineup included future director Jim Jarmusch on keyboards!). Just like their predecessors, these Nuggets are solid gold. Bring on Vol. 2.
If you were within 50 yards of top 40 radio or a nightclub dance floor in late 1999, you couldn’t have avoided hearing the infectious Blue (Da Ba Dee), whose lightly pumping disco backbeat and Cher-style AutoTune chorus made it a worldwide hit. To strike while the Eiffel is hot, so to speak, the Italian studio crew that created the track rush-released this full-length disc to market. Should you bite? Well, Europop certainly lives up to its name; these baker’s dozen tracks offer a never-ending supply of thumping rhythms, synth melodies and extended dance mixes. Sadly, it’s also a never-changing supply — all these tracks are virtually identical, right down to the vocal effect, which becomes pretty damn annoying by about song 7 or so. Eiffel 65? Think Eiffel One-Hit-Wonder.