Two decades ago, new albums from ‘N Sync, Jeff Healey Band 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):
No Strings Attached
Nice title, boys. No, really. I mean it. After all, as any true-blue ‘N Sync fan — i.e., any female between the ages of 11 and 17 — already knows intimately, the Florida fivesome spent a year or so battling in court to wrest control of their career and bank account from their former manager. So now, on their first album for the same label that is home to Backstreet and Britney’, Justin, J.C., Chris, Lance and Joey (a true fan would know their last names) are letting everybody know that they’re not gonna be anybody’s puppet any longer. Nope, these days they’re pulling their own strings. And cutting a few of them. As well as a declaration of their career independence, No Strings Attached is ‘N Sync’s bid to reposition itself for the new teen-pop millennium. And who have these five Sunshine state doo-wop crooners and Mickey Mouse Club alumni chosen as their role model? Why, black hip-hoppers of course.
Throughout this dozen-track followup to their self-titled ’98 debut (if you don’t count a subsequent Christmas release), ‘N Sync try to come off not so much as the boys next door but as the homies down the block, scaling back their syrupy soul-pop and slow-dance pillow-huggers and bum-rushing the show with a whack of block rockin’ beats and party-hearty anthems. If that isn’t scary enough for ya, consider this: Now and again, they almost pull it off.
Word, homie. Much as I hate to admit it, the petulant stomp of first single Bye Bye Bye packs a decent pop punch, lacing its peppy harmonies with a dark and sinister edge — or at least as close as these lads can get to dark and sinister. Likewise, despite a title lifted from a Steve Miller chestnut, Space Cowboy chugs along winningly on a soulful electro-disco groove that wouldn’t shame half the British dance acts on the scene (and scores extra cred points with a rap from TLC’s Left Eye). Same goes for the booty-shaking Friday night anthem Just Got Paid (produced by new jack swinger Teddy Riley), the voice-box robotic romance Digital Get Down and the dance-floor strut of Bringin’ Da Noise. If you didn’t listen to the vocals, you would have a hard time telling much of No Strings Attached from any other urban-groove outing.
But of course, there are vocals, and you can’t ignore them. And that, unfortunately and somewhat surprisingly, is where ‘N Sync stumble. You see, no matter how jiggy they get wid it, there’s still one little problem: THEY’RE FIVE WHITE KIDS FROM FLORIDA. So when they start to toss off lines about how they’re looking fly, jumping in their rides with their posses and getting freaky-deaky — that’s right, freaky-deaky — about as believable as that kid you always see hanging around your neighbourhood mall in a skully and baggies, flashing sets and calling his junior high school classmates “G.”
So, yes, cute title, boys. And for the record, not a bad try. But there’s still a big difference between pulling strings and grasping at straws.
Jeff Healey Band
Get Me Some
It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Canuck blues star Jeff Healey — at least on the pop charts. Since his last album, 1995’s Cover to Cover, Healey has apparently spent his time indulging other interests: new fatherhood, Dixieland jazz and adding to his collection of 80,000 records. If his new comeback disc is anything to go by, he also spent plenty of quality time with his acoustic guitar. Aside from the fire-breathing licks of single Which One, the trip-hoppy Hey Hey and a couple of funky Jimi Hendrix-style jams, the 54-minute, 13-track Get Me Some is a rootsy, at-times overly mellow affair. Like his hit Angel Eyes, tunes such as My Life Story, I Should Have Told You and Macon Country Blue are heavy on loping, midtempo pop melodies and sensitive-guy balladry — and light on Healey’s pyrotechnic lap-guitar work, which has been sequestered to background filler and mandatory mid-song solos. After so long away, it seems Jeff’s having trouble getting back in touch with his inner rocker. Too bad.
If British trip-folk baladress Beth Orton had moved to New York to go to college and become sorority sisters with Liz Phair and Jennifer Trynin, she might have ended up producing the same sultry, sweet-and-sour sounds as Leona Naess. This disarming, charming alt-chanteuse (and stepdaughter of Diana Ross, btw) actually did grow up in the U.K. and head to NYU, where she apparently picked up a downbeat downtown edge to go with her delicately beautiful guitar-folk songcraft. On this debut disc she combines equal portions of Orton’s intimacy, Phair’s lo-fi deadpan and Jen’s riffy sugar-pop. Along the way, you’ll also hear traces of P.J. Harvey, Luscious Jackson, Rickie Lee Jones and Kim Gordon if you’re paying attention. And I bet you will. Powerful in its simplicity, compelling in its emotionality and alluring in its adventurousness, Comatised is a disc that leaves you magnetised.
If you believe their bio, the two guitarists in Cupcakes are so passionate about their music that they came to blows while recording this disc. Take it from me: They care way too much. Especially for a band whose self-titled debut is essentially a standard slice of electro-tinged alt-pop, complete with grainy Weezer guitars, bleeping Cars synths, arena-rock drums (courtesy of former Filter and Smashing Pumpkins stickman Matt Walker) and a falsetto-loving, slightly pretentious vocalist who favours lyrics like “We are intentionally vague” and whose wandering accent suggests he can’t decide whether he’s in a Britpop band or an Yankee rock outfit. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what they were fighting about.
To A Cool Person, Stay That Way!
The mack daddies in this Rockford, Ill., outfit may seem like the last act to jump on the rap-metal bandwagon. Actually, they were there early on; this independently recorded disc was first released back in 1997, but just got picked up by a major label. Back then, it probably sounded more radical than it does now — at this point, The Pimps’ whole shtik, from the name and goofball lyrics on down to the blaxploitation funk-meets-scrungy white-trash rock, has been done to death by the Limp Bizkits and Kid Rocks of the world. Still, having said that, there’s no denying that these freak-flag-flying grooves are hefty and throbbing, the strep-throat vocals and Afro-Cuban percussion are an original touch — and you gotta dig a band with a song called Pimp Floyd. They may be cliche, but they’re still cool. Let’s hope they stay that way.
Watching The World Burn
In the liner notes to their new CD, while thanking all the bands who have toured with or inspired them, this New York hardcore quintet give a shout-out to (of all people) Jethro Tull. I’ll presume that one falls under the inspirational category — although for the life of me, I can’t see how. But it’s even harder to imagine the two outfits sharing a stage. Heaven only knows how Tull’s bearded-hippie folk-prog fans would react to the potent, searing meld of West Coast skate-punk and New York attitude Vision bring to bear on Watching the World Burn. This onslaught of double-time kick drums, sizzling Offspring and Pennywise guitar riffs, anthemic whoa-oh singalong choruses, and song titles like The Problem Is You!, No Compromise and Now I Bleed aren’t exactly Aqualung, you know. Thick As a Brick, maybe — but that’s another story.
Blue Öyster Cult
Don’t Fear The Reaper
In the interest of journalistic integrity and full disclosure, I confess I still own a complete set of original Blue Öyster Cult LPs. (Hey, I’re not the only one who digs their blend of Alice Cooper horror and Steppenwolf metal — punk bassist Mike Watt has been playing The Red & the Black at gigs for years.) So I welcome this new best-of collection, imperfect as it is. Sure, it has all the hits: the heavy-metal swagger of Godzilla, the sinister anti-hippie anthem This Ain’t the Summer of Love, the creepy romantic obsession of Burnin’ For You. And thanks to the remastering, you can finally make out the words. Too bad they didn’t remix these tracks as well; some of these decades-old productions are as insubstantial as dry ice fog. And where are classics like Fire of Unknown Origin, ETI and Career of Evil? It’s a long way from a definitive set, but until somebody does the complete BÖC box, you can’t do better for the price.
Wild Birds: 1985-1995
When Peter Murphy dies, snide journos will have fall over themselves whipping up headlines incorporating the phrase Bela Lugosi’s Dead — the monstrously morbid hit that assured Murphy and his band Bauhaus a place in history as the founding fathers and dark princes of goth. To say Bela‘s spectre has overshadowed the rest of Murphy’s career is like calling Madonna a bit of a tease; by contrast, the five albums he’s issued since the band parted ways in 1983 are footnotes in his bio. This 16-track retrospective aims to correct that oversight, revisiting the first decade of his solo career, during which he inched away from Bauhaus’s bleak, sepulchral chill and applied his rich, crypt-kicking baritone to a Bowie/Iggy art-pop oeuvre best embodied in the single Cuts You Up and his glammy cover of Pere Ubu’s Final Solution. It probably won’t be enough to change his obituary, but it’s a decent reminder that for Murphy, there is life after Bela.
Diving Into Darkness
On this fourth album, German goth-metallurgists Darkseed sound like they’ve been sharing a coffin condo with Type O Negative. Their music has a similar pummelling cadence and sludgy groove. Singer Stefan Hertrich even echoes Type O leader Peter Steele’s bombastic, vampiric vocal style. But try as they might, Darkseed don’t quite descend to the same dangerous depths as the Negative. They’re just a wee bit faster (some tracks actually resemble the midtempo metal of recent Metallica) and a shade more cutting-edge (along with frostings of keyboards, there are even a few dashes of electronica). Of course, with song titles like Hopelessness and Forever Darkness, these guys aren’t exactly Up With People. Still, next to the relentless gloom of Type O, this is giddy. Call it Type O Positive.
If there’s one thing bands hate, it’s comparative criticism — everybody likes to think their sound is completely unique. Meanwhile, one thing almost all fans want to know about a band is: Who do they sound like? Thankfully, Steel Prophet guitarist and songwriter Steve Kachinsky thinks like a fan. He doesn’t mind being compared to other metal bands; hell, he even does it himself on the liner notes to his band’s fifth disc Messiah. As Kachinsky happily admits, Steel Prophet’s sound incorporates everything from the galloping, epic metal and soaring vocals of Iron Maiden to the brooding sounds of Dio and Black Sabbath, along with touches of everything from Queen to Randy Rhoads to Michael Schenker tossed in for good measure. Sure, it ain’t exactly original, but hey, at least they’re honest about it. In that regard, Steel Prophet are one of a kind.
It’s been more than two decades since folk-rocker Steve Forbert was anointed the “new Dylan” after the hit Romeo’s Tune. Sadly, it’s also been almost that long since his career peaked. But even though he’s been off the pop culture radar, the other Little Stevie hasn’t been idle. A resident of Nashville since the ’80s, he’s been quietly plugging away, releasing new albums and evolving into a Great American Songwriter. Provided, of course, your idea of a Great American Songwriter, like mine, includes a young Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Alex Chilton or Paul Westerberg. Forbert’s latest, the roots-poppy Evergreen Boy, is filled with echoes of them all, from the rough-hewn, unvarnished simplicity of his arrangements to the wistful, witty introspection of his lyrics and even the off-the-cuff immediacy of its sound (it was produced, not surprisingly, by Jim Dickinson, who has worked with both Chilton and Westerberg). Forbert’s commercial career may have stalled somewhat, but it’s nice to see his creativity is still going strong.
Canuck country-bluesman Ray Bonneville’s last album, A Gust of Wind, was up for best blues album at this year’s Junos. Obviously, Bonneville is not a man who rests on his laurels. Less than a year later, the Ottawa-born, Quebec- and Boston-raised singer-guitarist is back with this first-class followup, recorded live in the studio last year. That setting is a perfect showcase for Bonneville’s laid-back, casual style, which blends the breezy, back-porch vibe of J.J. Cale, the lonesome, backroads folk of Taj Mahal and the lazy, hazy vocals of Bob Dylan. He didn’t take home the prize this time, but I won’t be surprised to see him on the nomination list again next year.
I’m pretty sure it takes more than two of anything to constitute an armada. But even though this downbeat house outfit consists only of London DJ duo Andy Cato and Tom Findley, they still generate enough groove to power a fleet of love boats. Setting sail on a sea that alternates between dreamy, flowing chillouts and splashy, rolling swells of sound, Cato and Findley lay out an all-you-can-eat buffet of funky beats and jazzy melodies, dished up with the help of a crew of live musicians that soften the electronic edge of the proceedings and keep the party vibe going full steam. By the end of the night, even Fatboy Slim is on board, remixing the dance-floor-filler I See You Baby and sailing into a psychedelic sunset. Welcome aboard … they’re expecting you.
Supreme Beings of Leisure
Supreme Beings of Leisure
My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult on probation. Garbage in the chill-out room. Portishead with a martini chaser. It’s easy to come up with cute quips to sum up the sound of this co-ed L.A. trip-hop quartet. After all, the relaxed, soothing style displayed on their debut full-length — some after-hours drum ‘n’ bass, some laid-back Fame-style funk, a few eerie backdrops and spooky strings, a little French cartoon disco, a bit of ’60s go-go groove and the odd James Bond jam, all crowned by luxuriously decadent diva vocals — is no problem to fall in love with. What’s tougher is coming up with a reason to get up and change CDs. But then, who doesn’t want a life of leisure?
There’s music, and then there’s spoken word. And for the most part, seldom the twain does meet — except for the odd track like, say, Baz Luhrmann’s Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen). Well, New York poet Sekou Sundiata does mention sunblock on one of the tracks on his second CD Longstoryshort, but he’s a long way from some sound-bite spewing novelty act. A Harlem native and English lit instructor, Sundiata’s second career as a jazz poet takes the word out of the classroom and brings it downtown to jam in the clubs. Backed by a funky outfit laying down rich, wet grooves, he wields his soulful, textured voice — somewhere between Isaac Hayes and Barry White — like a solo baritone sax, weaving African-American myth, history and pop culture into free-flowing, multi-faceted essays on what’s going on, what’s going down and what’s gone wrong. Part rap, part soul, part poetry, totally mesmerizing. But be warned: After this, plain old lyrics won’t seem the same.
Fifty Tons Of Black Terror
My Idle Hands
You know what they say about idle hands. Well, London quartet Fifty Tons of Black Terror’s sophomore disc is the sleaze-rock embodiment of that adage. With one foot in the gutter, and the other … well, pretty much right there beside it, Fifty Tons generate a low-rent brand of sonic filth and fury that suggests they nicked Jesus Lizard’s blooz-rawk crown, pawned it to buy sniff and went on one helluva bender down at the railway yards. Like their debut disc Demeter, this is a demented spree of crash-bash drumming, gut-wrenching fuzz-tone bass, grinding guitar sludge and a singer who howls and sputters like a brain-damaged DT sufferer hallucinating about butchered hogs, nudie flicks and root canal. In other words, it’s what every good rock ‘n’ roll album should be.