Two decades ago, new albums from Tina Turner, Morphine, Crowded House 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):
Twenty Four Seven
Blame Cher. After years without a hit, Sonny’s ex had to go and jumpstart her career with the dance-floor grooves and synth vocals of Believe. Naturally, in her wake other aging divas lined up to go nightclubbing. First past the velvet rope is Tina Turner, whose new Twenty Four Seven — if you multiply them, I think you get the number of albums she’s put out — bumps and jumps to the same lightly funky house vibe and squelching synthesizer sound as Believe, courtesy of the same production team. Tina doesn’t resort to the AutoTuner, mainly because she doesn’t need to — along with her ever-youthful legs, Turner’s 60-year-old pipes have the same grit, sass and power she displayed belting out Nutbush City Limits decades ago. But like her previous few albums, this remarkably forgettable material is plainly beneath her. To paraphrase the gal herself, it’s simply the second-best.
If you’re looking for a disc that’ll stand your hair on end and send shivers down your backbone, look no further than this fifth and final studio CD from Boston indie-rock jazzbos Morphine. Part of its spooky allure comes from the fact these 11 tracks were completed shortly before visionary singer/bassist Mark Sandman died onstage of a heart attack the previous summer. Plenty of ghostly, portentous lyrics such as “Leave your world, come to me / I’m closer to you than I seem” and “You want to disappear, I got the manual right here,” only add to the creep factor. But what truly sets your spine tingling is the tragically beautiful music of The Night. Easily their most evolved, accomplished and accessible work, this disc finds Morphine taking their “low-rock” sound to new heights, incorporating guitar, cello, piano and trombone into their minimalist lineup of two-string bass, sax and drums. The expanded musical palette adds new layers of depth and texture, allowing the band to smooth out the edges and round the corners of their angular, skronky style without sacrificing an iota of their throbbing, bluesy power or downtown jazz hipness. A sad, chilling and wonderfully satisfying album from stem to stern, The Night‘s only drawback is that there won’t be a followup.
Post-breakup discs like this can be big letdowns — as often as not, the “rarities and unreleased treasures” turn out to be a bunch of half-finished studio noodlings, unremarkable covers, badly recorded live tracks and B-sides that never deserved to be A-sides. Not so with this sterling set from New Zealand pop craftsmen Neil Finn and Crowded House. The 13 tracks on Afterglow were culled from every phase of the trio’s career, from their mid-’80s beginnings as a quartet to their final session a decade later. And each of them — the intimate sincerity of I Love You Dawn, Finn’s ballad to his wife; the silly pop novelty of My Telly’s Gone Bung; even the quirky Lester, an ode to an injured dog — has the same breezy jangle and Beatlesque pop appeal that turned songs like Something So Strong into worldwide hits. A great encore for a band that quit the scene too soon.
We Are The Streets
First things first: This New York rap trio’s handle has nothing to do with bagels and cream cheese — it stands for Living Off Experience (yes, technically they should be LOE; you tell them). Apparently, something about their experience working for former mentor Puff Daddy caused them to bolt for DMX’s Ruff Ryders camp. But it hasn’t made them radically alter the East Coast gangsta sound or idiosyncratic lyrical attack they debuted on 1998’s Money, Power & Respect. Sheek, Styles and Jada still like to lay down a simple, flowing groove, toss on a high-pitched keyboard line and then cut loose with a barrage of off-the-wall rhymes and hilarious braggadocio: They’re the only rappers I’ve heard dis a rival for being “soft as puddin’ ” while threatening to “smack some nuns.” Among the legions of soundalike crews out there, LOX has a flavour all its own.
The Madd Rapper
Tell ‘Em Why U Madd
In 1999, it was made painfully clear to a U.S. hip-hop critic just what makes The Madd Rapper mad — after he unmasked producer Deric (D-Dot) Angelettie as the voice behind the anonymous rhymer, the scribe allegedly suffered a beat-down at the hands of the Madd man. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, however, D-Dot seems happy to own up to his alter-ego — although, as his cartoonish debut disc stresses, “The Madd Rapper has a record deal and he’s still mad.” What about? Well, pretty much everything — the rap game that’s “worse than the streets,” the “shysty” ho’s that don’t treat him right, even the lack of fruit in his dressing room. Too bad he didn’t get more worked up over the overused rhymes and samples, tired disco and funk grooves and ubiquitous guest stars (Puffy, Busta, Mase, Eminem) that litter this second-rate CD. Mad (and occasionally humourous) he may be, but ground-breaking he ain’t. Now excuse me while I barricade the door.
The Beach Soundtrack
This soundtrack to Titanic heart-throb Leonardo DiCaprio’s trouble-in-paradise flick is kinda like a tropical vacation on its own. There’s plenty of sunshine and light, generated by the girlie-pop of Spice wannabes All Saints; some exotic, lush adventures courtesy of electronica excursions from Leftfield, Moby and Underworld; intoxicating island grooves in the form of Asian Dub Foundation’s cover of Lee (Scratch) Perry’s Return of Django; and even a few of those weird temporary friendships that people only seem to make on vacation — like electronica duo Orbital teaming with composer Angelo Badalamenti on the ebb and flow of Beached, or Sugar Ray delivering a jangly, Fly-guy interpretation of Brian Eno and John Cale’s Spinning Away. It’s worth the trip.
Scream 3 Soundtrack
Didja ever notice that when people talk about their favourite horror flick, they never name, say, Halloween IV or Friday the 13th Pt. III in 3-D? Likewise, nobody gushes about the score to Psycho 3 or Nightmare on Elm Street V. And trust me, the soundtrack to Scream 3 — the latest sequel in Kevin Williamson’s horror-movie spoof series — isn’t going to change that tune. As predictable as the inevitable cat scare, this collection of one-dimensional nu-metal is divided between the usual crop of Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie-inspired horror-rock impersonators (Dope, Powerman 5000, Static-X) and guitar-toting rock and rap-metal dudes (Creed, Incubus, Orgy, Staind) — all of whom bludgeon the listener as relentlessly as Jason. Spend your money on a good copy of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score instead.
Little River Band
It’s one of the sad truths of rock ‘n’ roll: Some great bands never get their due, while other mediocre acts end up household names. Take The Babys and Little River Band, two outfits that plied their trade in the late ’70s and early ’80s with vastly different outcomes. The Babys, starring a pre-Missing You John Waite, issued five albums of catchy, guitar-based arena-rock — each of which sank more or less without a trace. Thankfully, Anthology, an expanded version of an earlier hits set, rides to the rescue, unearthing buried rock treasures such as Sweet 17, Head First and Midnight Rendezvous, along with their poppy, minor hits Isn’t It Time and Back on My Feet Again. Why these guys never hit it big and Little River Band did is anybody’s guess. An Aussie group that specialized in California pop, this sextet led by pint-sized singer Glenn Shorrock couldn’t rock a chair, yet reeled off chart-toppers seemingly at will: Lonesome Loser, Help is on its Way, Reminiscing, The Night Owls, Lady, Happy Anniversary … On their best-of set Greatest Hits, the list goes on, with each song wimpier than the next. Yet to this day, LRB are a light-rock FM staple while The Babys can’t even rate a VH1 Behind the Music episode. As Alanis might say, isn’t it ironic?
What do Louis Armstrong, Jim Morrison and Ernie Kovacs have in common? Well, one thing — I suspect the only thing — is they all covered songs by German lyricist, poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. Decades after his death, Brecht — who, with composer Kurt Weill, wrote classics from Alabama Song to Mack the Knife — continues to influence musicians of all stripes. Witness German jazz eccentrics Frigg, whose latest album sets some of Brecht’s early poems to new compositions that range from Zappa-esque classical weirdness and downtown jazzbo skronk to invigorating klezmer and heavy metal. Fittingly, however, even at their most eclectic, these tunes manage to capture the Teutonic moodiness of Brecht’s world via sombre woodwinds, precise martial drumming and plenty of guttural, Dietrich and Nick Cave-style German vocals. Not only do Frigg honour Brecht’s words, they also pay tribute to the spirit of his work.
The Best Of
During her short, sad life, Billie Holiday — Lady Day, as sax man Lester Young dubbed her — had reason to sing the blues. She was beset by racism, drugs and troubles with the law (she was even busted for heroin possession on her deathbed). Sadly, this mistreatment continues in the form of second-rate, quick-buck cash-ins like this two-CD set. These 20 tunes (which could easily fit on one disc) were lifted from old 78s (some from bluesman Jeff Healey’s giant collection) and radio broadcasts from Holiday’s stints with Teddy Wilson, Eddie Heywood and Frankie Newton in the ’30s. Yes, tracks like Strange Fruit and God Bless the Child are some of her best, but these scratchy, muted affairs are hardly classic versions. And the lack of liner notes, photos or recording info is just plain cheesy. Don’t get me wrong; every note Holiday produces is pure magic. And hey, every Billie disc out there is one less Britney disc. Still, she deserves better than this after all she’s been through.
Tara Jane O’Neil
Along with fellow short-lived indie-rock forerunners Slint, Louisville, Ky.’s Rodan helped pioneer and perfect the melancholy minimalism of the slo-core sound — dreamy guitars, leisurely tempi, intimate vocals — that’s been dominating the college charts of late. On her solo bedroom-fi debut Peregrine, former Rodan multi-instrumentalist Tara Jane O’Neil continues to illustrate how less can be more — and considerably more beautiful. Coaxing gentle, flowing melodies from her guitar and piano (she played nearly all the instruments here, including banjo and balalaika), O’Neil unburdens herself with affectless vocals, spinning ethereal odes that fall somewhere between downbeat Breeders, Julie Doiron and The Carpenters’ Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft. Quite extraordinary.
Storm & Stress
Under Thunder & Fluorescent Light
Two-thirds of New York/Chicago trio Storm and Stress (English for sturm und drang) are in instrumental futurist fusionists Don Caballero. Not surprisingly, S&S prowl a musical netherwold similar to that of Don Cab; a place where surging indie-rock energy meets meandering, free-jazz eccentricity. But they do it without DC’s forays into thrash-metal thunder and proggy noise-rock. Instead, Stanley Jordanesque guitarist Ian Williams, crash ‘n’ bash drummer Kevin Shea and bassist Erich Emm take a more spacious and delicate approach to their mostly instrumental works, savouring and kneading the emptiness between the notes as purposefully as the music itself. Theirs is a world of texture and subtlety over structure and velocity. They may call their intentionally improvised style “purposeful forgetfulness,” but it produces some memorable musical results.
Angst, idealism, self-loathing, confusion, hatred and raging hormones — if there’s any music that mirrors teenage life better than old-school punk rock, I don’t know what it is. Nor can I conceive of a more perfect punk rocker than 18-year-old Devon Williams, the leader of L.A.’s Osker. Their debut disc is your basic blast of bratty sonic snot, with Devon bitching about the world and whining “Why does my life suck?” like a frustrated Billie Joe Armstrong over a bed of thrashing guitars, three-chord tunes and one-two drums straight offa old Green Day and Rancid singles. Sure, someday Williams will probably cringe at these songs like you or I looking at our yearbook pics. But right now, Treatment 5 is a crystal-clear snapshot of his teenage wasteland.
Frankly, I’ve lost count: Is the latest ska revival the third wave? Oh well, no matter. At least I can pinpoint exactly where Swedish (that’s right, I said Swedish) ska outfit Liberator are coming from. This skanking septet — vocals, guitar, bass, organ, drums, sax and trombone — are riding the second-wave new-wave sounds of ’70s and ’80s British outfits like Madness and The Specials. The herky-jerky beats, the scritch-scratch stylings, the funhouse keyboards, the honking horns and the twangy surf guitars on these 14 tracks could have been lifted straight from 2Tone classics like One Step Beyond or I Just Can’t Stop It. If it’s a new shot of old-style rudeness you’re jonesing for, this is your fix. Just make sure you hurry up and get it before the next wave hits.