Two decades ago, new albums from Steely Dan, AC/DC, Limblifter 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):
Two Against Nature
If you’re trying to remember how long it’s been since the last Steely Dan album, put it this way — when Gaucho came out in 1980, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera weren’t even born. Now that you feel old, here’s the good news: You’d never know a moment had passed from their ninth studio release Two Against Nature. From the cucumber-cool studio-musician performances to the turtleneck-sweater light-jazz grooves, from the twisted humour (Gaslighting Abbie) to the cryptic, subversive lyrics about lust and incest (“We used to play when we were three / How about a kiss for your cousin Dupree?”), from Donald Fagen’s blue-eyed soul vocals and electric piano to Walter Becker’s ice-pick guitar genius, Two Against Nature is a slice of freeze-dried ’70s pop unfettered by drum machines, James Brown samples or electronica loops. You might say they don’t make ’em like that anymore. Except they do — about every 20 years or so.
Stiff Upper Lip
You know, for a band that essentially has two songs — the midtempo plodding one and the faster, uh, plodding one — AC/DC sure have made the most of ’em. And continue to on Stiff Upper Lip, their 17th album and first since 1995’s Ballbreaker. You get about half a dozen of each variation — the title track and Satellite Blues head down the Highway to Hell yet again, Safe in New York City is Let There Be Rock in the Big Apple. All are performed exactly as every AC/DC song has been since the beginning of time: With Angus and Malcolm Young throttling bad-boy boogie riffs from their guitars, Phil Rudd laying down a backbeat that makes Charlie Watts seem flamboyant, and Brian Johnson shrieking like a teenage girl whose boyfriend just got impaled in a horror movie. Bottom line: If you’re a fan, you’ll still be on after Still Upper Lip. If you aren’t, you still won’t be — no matter how many times you hear those same two songs.
Remember these guys? It’s OK if you don’t; frankly, neither did I at first. After all, it’s been four years since Vancouver power-pop trio Limblifter — a side project of Age of Electric’s Ryan and Kurt Dahle — put out their debut disc. But while it’s been a long time coming, this memorable followup was well worth the wait. Especially for fans of Big Star, The Posies, Cheap Trick and Matthew Sweet; they’ll find plenty to love about Bellaclava’s 13 tracks of sunshiny harmonies and winsome pop songcraft. The fact that they’re balanced by some interesting, edgy production and smartly twisted lyrics doesn’t hurt a bit either. Hopefully these boys won’t take so long between albums in the future, but in any case, you’ll remember them from now on.
Suicide Pact — You First
You expect bands to keep getting mellower and more commercial as they age. Trust the miserable metalheads in Ireland’s Therapy? to buck that trend. After flirting with a melodic, poppier sound in the mid-’90s, the foursome has fully reawakened its savage, twisted inner demons on this seventh album. Lurching along on weird time signatures, propelled by thunderous drums and prodded by buzzsaw guitars that sound like Billy Gibbons and Bob Mould doubleteaming a Marshall stack, these 11 eclectic and electrifying tracks indulge all of singer Andy Cairns’ many vocal personalities — his Beefhearty Tom Waits rumble, his John Lydon-meets-Mark E. Smith yelp, and even his Michael Stipe croon (especially on Six Mile Water, which shares DNA with R.E.M.’s So. Central Rain). Suicide Pact may not be Therapy?’s finest hour — that would be ’94’s Trouble Gum — but it undeniably breathes new life into the old coots.
His name reminds you of an old-time mobster. But Philly’s Beanie Sigel — the handle supposedly combines a youthful bad-hair experience and the name of his old street – is no retro gangster-rapper. He’s a member of Jay-Z’s posse who got his foot in the door guesting on the boss’s tracks Money Cash Hoes and Reservoir Dogs. With this debut solo disc, Beanie gets his shot at the spotlight, but ends up trapped in Jay-Z’s shadow. Not only are his voice and brooding delivery sometimes strikingly similar to Jay, but he also goes in for obscure soundtrack samples (except he prefers B-movie shlock such as Hard Rain and Conan the Barbarian to family fare such as Annie). The real tipoff that Sigel isn’t his own man is the last track — it’s a new Jay-Z tune!. Aside from the gritty cautionary jailhouse tale What Your Life Like, The Truth is not going to set Beanie free.
This pack of Cleveland potheads have certainly come a long way — on their new fourth disc, they also rap about Ecstasy. But don’t worry, these proteges of Eazy-E haven’t mellowed any. BTNHResurection, which reunites Krayzie, Layzie, Bizzy, Wish and Flesh-N-Bone after a spate of so-so solo albums, is once again highlighted by their trademark coupling of roughneck gangsta rap and silky-smooth doowop harmonies, braced by a wall of bumptious West Coast G-funk beats and chilling synths. Longtime collaborator DJ U-Neek’s neck-snapping grooves and mad-scientist programming keep BTNHResurrection moving — and keep you coming back for another hit.
Singer-guitarist Montoya is living proof that the blues recognizes no geographic boundaries. This Los Angeles native spent a decade backing up British Bluesbreaker John Mayall — but on Suspicion, his fourth solo CD, his fiery style and sound seem to come straight from deep in the heart of Texas. Maybe it has something to do with the years Montoya spent apprenticed to Albert (Iceman) Collins. Or maybe it’s because Montoya’s gritty vocals and choppy, funky fretwork often recall another Texas blues legend named Stevie Ray. Not that Montoya deserves to be lumped in with the legions of Vaughannabes out there these days; he’s just as capable and comfortable laying back behind a Memphis-style Stax/Volt groove, for instance, as he is burning down the juke joint with a Hendrix-inspired solo.
Life Before Insanity
Hendrix, Zeppelin, Cream, the Allmans, Stevie Ray. You can’t quibble with southern blue-rock power-trio Gov’t Mule’s resume and influences. And even if they sometimes wear them on the sleeves of their leather jackets, you can’t quibble with the way they recycle them into hip-shaking, acid-tinged jam-boogie-rock. Of course, guitarist Warren Hayes and bassist Allen Woody come by a few of those influences honestly — they both spent years in the Allman Brothers Band before forming the Mule with drummer Matt Abts. On this soulful fifth album, they once again remain faithful to their roots while being distinctive enough to avoid sounding like a knockoff. Case in point: After spending a decade singing with Gregg Allman and Dickie Betts, Warren sounds exactly like … Paul Rodgers from Bad Company. That you can quibble with.
The Almighty Trigger Happy
I Hate Us
“Don’t want to live forever,” hollers Trigger Happy vocalist Alan Nolan on the song No Luxury. Apparently, he and the rest of this veteran Canadian indie-punk outfit decided to take their own advice — they just broke up. But on this final album, they go out not with a whimper but a bang. Not to mention a boom, a crash and more than a few screeches of feedback. I Hate Us is a blistering set of old-school punk rock piss and vinegar, from the stop-start polka-frenzy drums and buzzsaw guitars to the anarchic idealism of the lyrics to tunes like Bought to be Sold and Reality Time Check. Still, they’re no two-dimensional outfit. After eight years together, they have the range and confidence to knock off a note-perfect cover of Fear’s Gimme Some Action and follow it with an instant-classic original like Everything Evil (Is Good Again), a motormouthed riff-rocker that closes the gap between the Dead Kennedys and R.E.M.’s It’s the End of the World as We Know It. For Trigger Happy, it actually is the end — but thanks to I Hate Us, you’ll feel fine.
Didja ever notice that there never were any good original grunge acts from outside the U.S.? Think about it: Even at its peak, all the big boys — Nirvana, Soundgarden, Everclear, yadda, yadda, yadda — were from the States. (Silverchair and Bush don’t count; they’re just copycats.) Listening to Launched, the American debut from Germany’s Beatsteaks, made me realize these guys are the fist worthy European grunge act I’ve heard. This quintet hits all the teen-spirit touchstones — pummeling drums, screeching gritty guitars, stop-start anthems, primal-scream vocals — with enough mosh-worthy verisimilitude to make you think they grew up chugging espresso in Seattle. But they pull it off without sounding like a bunch of Nirvanabes, thanks to undercurrents of post-pop melodicism and anthemic songwriting that owe plenty to post-grunge outfits such as Foo Fighters. They may be a little late to the grunge party, but they can still rock the house.
If you’re like me, when you hear the name Seely, one thing comes to mind — that’s right, Posturepedic Matresses™. Well, this arty, co-ed Georgia foursome may not be in cahoots with the bed manufacturers — their name is spelled differently, after all — but they’ll give you sweet dreams just the same. With guitars that gently jangle, soothing, somnambulist melodies, lush synthesizers and angelically breezy lullaby vocals that speak as if from your subconscious, these electronic-tinged clouds of pillowy-soft dream-pop pull the covers up to your chin and tuck you in. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.
360 Business / 360 Bypass
If there’s any musical genre suffering the effects of diminishing return these days, it’s slo-core. With every band trying to be slower, lower, quieter and simpler than the next, it’s only a matter of time before indie-rock devolves into one endlessly fading synth tone. Luckily, Mark Nelson is here to put a little life back in the post-rock party. As guitarist for Virginia trio Labradford, he helped blaze the minimalist trail everybody else is following. On his second solo CD as Pan•American, he continues to stay ahead of the pack by taking a step in the opposite direction. Venturing into the middle ground where ambient, electronica, jazz and dub meet, Nelson gently weaves lazy funk beats, ghostly subconscious vocals, swirling melodies and shimmering pools of reverb and echo into a 360° headphone journey not unlike ambient Aphex Twin. It’s still one of the quietest CDs you’ll hear this year, but next to the competition, it’s the first four Black Sabbath albums rolled in one. Sometimes, more is more.
Electronica is usually a keyboard medium. Particularly the sort of electronica that is Euphoria’s stock in trade — ethereal, soundtracky soundscapes that toggle smoothly between the groove of dance and the soothe of trance. But on this effective debut from musical mastermind Ken Ramm, the synths, samplers and sequencers co-exist peacefully with a slightly unusual element: Guitars. And plenty of ’em, all played by Ramm — desert-dry Ry Cooder slides; delicately plucked gut-string acoustics; vibrato-drenched electrics; you name it, you get it. Along with dreamy, angel’s-breath vocals that drift in from the edge of consciousness, tastefully restrained global grooves … and yes, even the occasional keyboard.
The Quick and the Dead
The title refers, of course, to the two kinds of gunfighters. And without a doubt, Spooky and Scanner are the two quickest draws in the turntable tribe these days. Despite the fight-card-style billing, however, Q&D — the first of Scanner’s new collaborative Meld Series — is no DJ duel. No surprise there; after all, this like-minded pair have been on the same side for years. Both Spooky (whose intellectual hip-hop excursions engage the brain along with the booty) and Scanner (who earned his nickname by using intercepted cell phone calls in his mixes) continue to prowl the post-modern urban landscape here, scavenging bits of cultural detritus and affixing them to their graffiti-art collages of John Cage ambient minimalism, Sonic Youth noise-rock, and whacked-out headtrip hip-hop. In this shootout, everybody hits the bulls-eye.
New York pianist Peggy Stern prefers things small and simple — “I don’t want flashy,” she says in the bio for her third CD. She’s true to her word; in these 11 compositions for piano and horns, Stern sneaks up on you, playing under the band, slightly behind the beat and quietly pushing the melody along with uncluttered chording and note runs that are elegant as strings of pearls. The band, including Bernard (Pretty) Purdie on drums, follow he lead, turning in crisp, less-is-more performances heavy on texture and style and light on overblown solos. Proof that good things do come in small packages.
If you’ve been wondering what organ-jazz funketeers Medeski, Martin and Wood would sound like if they added a permanent guitarist, Zony Mash is the answer. Of course, MMW would also have to move south of the Mason-Dixon to complete the picture and compete with Zony Mash’s southern-fried sound. With a pickled pig foot in one hand and a bottle of Wild Turkey nearby, organist Wayne Horvitz and his trio groove, move, slip and slide through 11 R&B-based tracks laced with gurgling organs, squealing guitars and gumbo-thick backbeats. These guys sound like they’ve been sharing a dressing room with the Allmans — which makes the fact they’re from Seattle all the more amazing. Nearly as amazing as Upper Egypt.
The Next Best Thing Soundtrack
In hindsight, The Next Madonna Bomb might have been a better title for this cinematic turkey. Still, it would be a pity if this enjoyable soundtrack shared the same fate as the flick. the chief selling point, obviously, is La Ciccone’s swirly techno-pop cover of American Pie. But it’s not the sole attraction. The Next Best Thing has several other worthwhile tracks: Previously issued dance floor ditties such as Metisse’s Boom Boom Ba and Manu Chao’s Bongo Bong; album tracks from Groove Armada and Moby; and even a poppy new track from freshly minted Grammy winner Christina Aguilera — the next best thing to Madonna.
Where Music Meets Film
At first, I was impressed. Barely a month after the Sundance Film Festival, here’s a first-rate collection of live tracks taped at its chic, celebrity-studded parties. Look at the fine print, though, and you’ll see they’re all from last year’s fest. Still, tardiness aside, there’s little to pan in this set of acoustic gems from the likes of John Hiatt (Cry Love), Lyle Lovett (If I Had a Boat), Eagle-Eye Cherry (Falling in Love Again), Shawn Mullins (Shimmer), Jill Sobule (I Kissed a Girl), and Abra Moor (Four Leaf Clover), all of whom turn in intimate, impeccable performances. Two thumbs up.
Shadow Masters: Drum ’n’ Bass
With its paranoid, sinister vibe and clattering, edgy rhythms, drum ’n’ bass is the black sheep of electronica — the darker, moodier, dangerous cousin, if you will. So consider this latest Shadow Masters comp something of a family affair. The 10 acts — including Shadow label stalwarts such as Futique and Yeneh — share the same background, but their sounds cover the spectrum of bleeding-edge d’n’b, from the dark and dangerous Cujo to the jazzy funk of James Hardaway and the lush sweep of Ultralights. Think of them as the family that plays together.