Two decades ago, new albums from Oasis, The Cure, Neko Case, Yo La Tengo 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):
Standing on the Shoulder of Giants
They may be bigger than Jesus, Mary and John Lennon back home, but try as they might, Oasis haven’t quite managed to conquer America. Maybe it’s their determinedly British sound and Mancunian accents that alienate Yankee ears. or maybe folks were turned off by their slavish, Xerox-like knockoffs of Beatles classics. Or maybe it’s the fact that once they stormed to supersonic overseas superstardom with Definitely Maybe in 1994, brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher instantly morphed into typically annoying rock stars — boozing, brawling brats whose loutish statements and public tantrums clearly evinced their disregard for their audience.
But that was then and this is now. Five years later, things are different. Professionally, the band has two new members — former Heavy Stereo guitarist Gem Archer and ex-Ride bassist Andy Bell — in place of Bonehead and Paul McGuigan, who left last year. Personally, the lads have also grown. Liam is married and a father. He and Noel have supposedly ditched (or at least reined in) their nasty habits. And they seem to have a new philosophy when it coms to America: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. At least, that’s the subliminal message you get from the band’s fourth album, Standing on the Shoulder of Giants (a quote from Isaac Newton that adorns Britain’s £2 coin). After half a decade of paying homage to The Beatles and The Kinks, Oasis has crossed the musical pond and issued its most contemporary, American-sounding album thus far. So much so, in fact, that at first, I thought I’d been slipped a Black Crowes disc by mistake.
Check out album overture F—in’ in the Bushes and see what I mean. Jiving along to a fat, neck-snapping beat from drummer Alan White, Noel cranks up the treble, cranks down his E string and rips off a wickedly funky guitar lick straight from south of the Mason-Dixon Line. That’s right, I said “funky” and “Noel Gallagher” in the same sentence. And that’s just for starters. Next up, instant classic Go Let it Out samples the beat of Cajun classic I Walk on Gilded Splinters — the same song Beck sliced and diced for Loser. Who Feels Love visits Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love with its trippy, backward-guitar and sitar groove. Put Yer Money Where Yer Mouth Is mines a garage-rock vein. I Can See a Liar has a chorus that wouldn’t be out of place on an old Aerosmith album.
Oddly, despite its old-school rock vibe, Shoulder also boasts a cutting-edge sound, presumably thanks to the influences of producer Mark (Spike) Stent, whose previous clients include U2 and Massive Attack. As you’d reckon from his resumé, he lends an experimental electronica edge to the proceedings: Isle of Wight movie-dialogue samples, loops, backwards tape effects and such.
Still, it’s not like Oasis have turned into some weird hybrid of Grand Funk Railroad and The Chemical Brothers. At root level, Shoulder is another Brit-rock opus that treads a well-worn path through their familiar world of canyon-sized guitar licks, Fab melodies, sweeping epic ballads — and, of course, lyrics so atrocious a teenage hippie would be embarrassed to sing them. “Is it any wonder why princes and kings are clowns that caper in their sawdust rings?” asks Noel — presumably rhetorically — in one track. “I can see a liar, sitting by a fire,” he nursery-rhymes in another (amazingly, without going on to tell us the length of his nose). You wonder how Liam can stand it — until, that is, you come to his own lyrical debut: The ballad to his son, Little James. “You live for your toys, even though they make noise,” he whines like a hungover dad. “Have you ever played with Plasticine, or even tried a trampoline?” Forget I said anything, Noel.
So OK, maybe Standing on the Shoulder of Giants isn’t a perfect album. But after years of flipping their fans the bird — musically and literally — at least Oasis are finally trying. And you have to give them points for that.
Given the tawdry, tabloid nature of Michael Hutchence’s self-inflicted death in a Sydney hotel room in 1997, morbid curiousity will likely generate more interest in the INXS frontman’s solo album than there might have been had he lived. Sad as that is, at least it might give this worthwhile disc the audience it deserves. Despite being posthumously completed by collaborators Andy Gill (Gang of Four) and Danny Saber (Black Grape), this 13-song offering — most of which actually predates the INXS finale Elegantly Wasted — seldom feels cobbled together. From the glammy Bowie-style kick of opener Let Me Show You to the trip-hoppy denouement of Slide Away, these are fully formed tracks stylistically balanced between Hutchence’s pop-star commercialism, Gill’s post-punk experimentalism and Saber’s electronic tomfoolery. It isn’t trailblazing genius, but it’s a long way from disposable pop fluff — and a disc that reminds us it’s Hutchence’s life, not his death, that bears remembering.
One current online bio about The The leader Matt Johnson referred to his band in the past tense. You can’t fault whoever wrote; it’s been seven years since the snail-paced artist’s last album of original material, and five since his previous CD, the Hank Williams cover set Hanky Panky. But just when it seemed all hope was lost, Johnson has finally returned. And his new disc, Naked Self, is an aptly titled, soul-bearing return to form. Continuing his evolution from the dance-floor popster of Soul Mining to the dark, rootsy balladeer of Dusk, Johnson — now recording on Trent Reznor’s imprint — walks a dirt road of desperation here, relating bleakly tender tales of sorrow and bitterness in a sampler, sequencer and synthesizer-free world of jangling country-folk and moody, screeching guitar rock. It’s an album that bears repeated listening. It has to: Who knows if and when there will be a followup?
Hooray for Boobies
Bloodhound Gang singer Jimmy Pop is the kind of guy who thinks it’s funny to say the word vagina. To his mother. And then record it and put it on a CD. Which is exactly what he does on Hooray for Boobies, his rap-mtal outfit’s gleefully stupid, joyously sophomoric and ridiculously misogynist fourth album. That is, when he isn’t singing the praises of porn stars (The Ballad of Chasey Lain), oral sex (Yummy Down on This) or exotic dancers (A Lap Dance is so Much Better When the Stripper is Crying) over his band’s cartoon-metal tracks. Still, his do-it-all-for-the-nookie idiocy turns out to be his saving grace. Even at his most offensive — and trust me, that’s way more outrageous than anything I’ve noted above — Pop is so childishly over the top you can’t really take him any more seriously than you do Howard Stern. Like his mom, you just say, “Oh, Jim!”
When Robert Smith whines, “I know we have to go, I realize we only get to stay so long,” seconds in The Cure’s new album, you can be forgiven for rolling your eyes. After all, Smith — the guru of gloom to raccoon-eyed, pasty-faced, black-clad teens the world over — has been hinting/threatening for years to disband his pioneering goth outfit. Bloodflowers, the band’s 13th disc, is the latest “last Cure album.” It should be — not that it’s bad. Quite the opposite; if Smith is looking for the right time to bow out, it’s after a masterwork like this powerful and near-perfect song cycle. Disposing with the shallow pop of recent years, Robert returns to gloriously glum form, wallowing in a sea of exquisite agony and lament as he gets tossed by waves of richly textured, darkly passionate post-punk guaranteed to renew the faith of every fan. “When we look back at it all, as I know we will,” he asks, “will we really remember how it felt to be this alive?” After this, we just might.
These oddball alt-folkies have come a long way from their early days busking on the streets of Milwaukee — but not so far that they don’t remember the way back. On this energetic disc (their first in five years) recorded during a pre-Halloween romp through their home state, they retrace those musical footsteps, thrashing, bashing and yipping their way through stripped-down, overdub-free versions of much-beloved classics (Gone Daddy Gone, Blister in the Sun, Add it Up, Kiss Off), with a smattering of more recent tracks (I’m Nothing, Dahmer is Dead). Amazingly, after 20 years, eccentric vocalist Gordon Gano and co. still sound the same — part Talking Heads, part Velvet Underground, part Jonathan Richman and yes, part folkie busker. You can take the boys out of the street …
No, you aren’t having deja vu. This isn’t the same CD this Swedish cartoon dance-pop quartet put out in 1997. It’s not even close — that one was called Aquarium. This one’s Aquarius. See? A world of difference. You can say pretty much the same of the music, which has the same Olive Oyl-and-Bluto vocals, the same candy-coloured neon pop, the same relentlessly effervescent disco thump, the same silly topics — bumble bees, circuses, cartoon heroes. The only thing it doesn’t have is a song as infectious as Barbie Girl. Which may mean Aqua will be spared the task of trying to think of a third album title based on the same word.
No One Does it Better
Boy Band Rule No. 1: The quality of a boy band decreases in inverse proportion to the typographical silliness of its name. Backstreet Boys are better than ’N Sync; ’N Sync are better than 5ive; and so on. This Vancouver teen-soul trio’s handle is soulDecision — no space, no hyphen, lower-case s and capital D in the middle. You do the math. Rule No. 2:
A boy band must have no sense of irony whatsoever. Case in point: With straight faces, soulDecision complain they’ve “had enough of plastic people wasting my time.” So have we, boys. Ahem. Rule No. 3: A boy band must be sexually non-threatening — nice young men who can make Up With People seem like drooling perverts with syrupy lines such as “I like the way you’re making me wait.” Rule No. 4: The title of a boy band record is always the opposite of reality.
Wonder Boys Soundtrack
“Hello and thanks for calling Soundtracks By The Numbers. How can I help you? A soundtrack for your new film? Certainly, sir. We’ll just need the name of the movie and the lead actor and a description of his character. Un-huh. OK, let me read that back: You movie is Wonder Boys, starring Michael Douglas as a male-menopausal college professor, correct? Well, may we recommend our Men of ’60s Folk Rock sampler? It comes with a new, high-quality Bob Dylan number — a darkly loping, jangly track called Things Have Changed, his first song in three years — plus an assortment of old Neil Young, Tom Rush, Tim Hardin, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison and John Lennon to tie in with the whole aging-hippie, college-prof, ’60s theme. The other songs? Oh, it doesn’t matter; they’re just filler. Trust us, nobody will be listening after the Dylan tune. Now, can I interest you in a movie-clip video tie-in to go with that? … ”
It sounds like a David Letterman introduction: Doc, Duke; Duke, Doc. But this disc ain’t no joke, junior. Mac (Dr. John) Rebennack, the funky N’Awlins Night Tripper hisself, turns his attention to the swellegant sound of Duke Ellington, America’s greatest jazz songwriter — and this time the Doc is definitely in the right place at the right time. Backed by only a basic rock trio, John does a wondrous number on Duke’s sounds, paring tunes down to their bare bones and converting light-fingered, silky jazz to Mardi Gras gumbo chock full of popping bass lines, funky-as-all-get-out drumbeats, chicken-scratch guitar and the occasional honking sax standing in for the Duke’s big band. From classics like Satin Doll and Mood Indigo to obscurities like Flaming Sword, John puts the strut into Duke’s cut and the glide into his stride. Duke once said it don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing. If he heard this, he’d know different. So will you.
“File under jazz,” the PR bumpf says. Well, maybe — but only because there isn’t a section in the store that could properly contain this genre-leaping offering from New York’s Sex Mob. The group’s members have swung with The Lounge Lizards, plinked and plonked next to Tom Waits, rocked out for Sean Lennon and skronked behind John Zorn. Here, they put all that experience into play on a mesmerizing, trail-blazing CD with one of the freakiest, funkiest set lists around: Nirvana’s About a Girl, backdated to violin ragtime; Duke Ellington’s Mooch, tarted up as a bawdy bump ’n’ grind; Abba’s Fernando, jammed by drunken toreadors; CSNY’s For What It’s Worth, mournfully rendered as a NOLA funeral march, and The Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday, skanked up with a dub section. File under jazz? I think not; Sex Mob are definitely in a class by themselves.
The Gunga Din
Imagine what it would sound like if Tom Waits wrote the soundtrack to Cabaret. If Marlene Dietrich joined The B-52s. If Cowboy Junkies donned shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather for a tribute to Kurt Weill. If Exene and John Doe were from the Weimar Republic. If Bertold Brecht ran a New York indie label. If Liz Phair fronted a Velvet Underground tribute band. If Nick Cave had a sex change and The Bad Seeds covered Berlin. If Morphine were Nico’s backing band. Had any of these come to pass, there might be another band as deliciously decadent, desperate and world-weary as these co-ed, post-modern torch balladeers from New York. But there isn’t. No ifs, ands or buts.
Yo La Tengo
And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out
Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley are that rarest of rock pairings — spouses who actually get along. And like a lot of happily marrieds, the longer they’re together, the less they apparently need to say — each one already knows what the other is thinking. After more than a decade sharing a personal and professional life, Yo La Tengo’s guitarist hubby and drummer wife artfully celebrate that hard-won state of telepathic bliss on their beautiful 10th album. Of course, also like a lot of married couples, they don’t party like they used to. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out continues along the quieter, gentler and more intimate path set on 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. Kicking the volume and tempo down a notch, Kaplan and Hubley take a long, loving look at relationships and romance, their words floating by on gentle, post-psychedelic waves of guitar and lulling keyboards. Fans of the white light/white heat guitar torture of their early work be warned; only the Sonic Youthy art-grunge of Cherry Chapstick comes close. The rest of the time, you can practically hear their two hearts beating as one.
Arling & Cameron
Music for Imaginary Films
Plenty of electronica albums deserve to be called cinematic — but this disc from Dutch dance duo Gerry Arling and Richard Cameron really takes the cake. True to its title, these 14 tracks are theme songs for films and TV shows that never were. They definitely would have been — hell, I would have plunked down cash for the blaxploitatoin wah-wah soundtrack to Le Flic et la Fille or the tropicalia-cocktail score to Zona Sul. And I certainly would have tuned in every week to catch the next episode of the Star Trek-meets-Love Boat series 1999 Spaceclub or the noirish, spy-jazz adventures of Hashi the Drug Sniffing Canine. As if all that isn’t wild enough, there’s also Brady-style teen-pop, the sitar ’n’ guitar of Bollyrock and even a psychotic Bernard Herrmann homage — not to mention posters, plotlines, cast lists and even critical blurbs to complete the whole silly, savvy affair. Two thumbs up — now, how about a sequel?
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
DJs these days sometimes tend to paint by the numbers — they start with a foundation of hip-hop beats and funky bass, add a dab or two of sampling, some scratches for texture et voila!; another dance-floor still-life. In comparison, Montreal mixmaster Kid Koala is the Picasso of plate-spinners, a talented abstract artist always pushing the envelope. Case in point: His long-awaited full-length debut Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, a wonderfully skewed, brilliantly innovative affair. Less a composer than a pop artist whose medium is sound, Koala (born Eric San) stitches together the weirdest elements in the weirdest way possible. Freaky samples (like, say, lines from Revenge of the Nerds) pop up like stream-of-consciousness thought balloons. Quirky hip-hop and jazz beats slow, speed, stop and start willy-nilly. sometimes songs are abandoned totally to showcase the Kid’s mind-blowing, Van Halen-level stylus skills, which he uses to create rhythms, melodies and even gibberish vocals reminiscent of the adults in Peanuts cartoons. With limitless powers and enough playful audacity to make Fatboy Slim look like a Quaker, Kid Koala has painted his masterpiece.
Furnace Room Lullaby
Beneath the Country Underdog
Sadly, many folks’ idea of a female country singer these days is probably Shania or LeAnn — bared belly buttons, Def Leppard knockoffs and all. Thank heavens, then, for the likes of Neko Case and Kelly Hogan, two singer-songwriters whose new albums recall the real first ladies of country: Patsy, Loretta, Tammy and Wanda. You can hear a little of each in Case’s brassy, powerful twang, which she unleashes on her stunning sophomore disc Furnace Room Lullaby. Blacked by her authentically ragged all-star outfit The Boyfriends, including Ron Sexsmith, members of 54•40, The Sadies, Spirit of the West and Grapes of Wrath, former Maow drummer and Vancouverite Case swoons and croons through a dozen original shots of straight self-pity with a misery chaser. Chicagoan Hogan, meanwhile, strikes a sometimes rockier pose on Beneath the Country Underdog, her first full-fledged recording in three years. Aided and abetted by Mekons guitarist and insurgent country potentate Jon Langford and his Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Hogan wraps her haunting, fallen-angel voice around inspired covers (Willie Nelson’s I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone, The Band’s Whispering Pines, Magnetic Fields’ Papa Was a Rodeo), and originals well-crafted enough to hold their own. if you want belly buttons and bad ballads, stick with Shania and LeAnn. If it’s the real country deal you’re after, either of these women will do the trick.