Two decades ago, new albums from No Doubt, Supergrass, Headstones 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):
Return of Saturn
I’m not in the habit of feeling sorry for pretty-boy, zillionaire rock stars — but lately you can’t help but have the odd pang of sympathy for Bush’s Gavin Rossdale. As anyone who’s been within six yards of a supermarket checkout or TV gossip show knows, Rossdale is quickly becoming less famous for his own career than he is for being the boyfriend of No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani. And after listening to Return of Saturn, her latest sure-fire chart-topper of a disc, it’s clear he’s got his hands full with the candy floss-haired, Boop-voiced pop starlet.
The problem? Well, put it this way: Gwen doesn’t seem to be the most romantically secure gal on the block. And she sure isn’t the type who quietly broods to herself — her band’s last disc, the ’95 smash Tragic Kingdom, was a blow-by-blow chronicle of her breakup with bassist Tony Kanal. For Gavin, rough as it must be to have a girl who still works with her ex — and has pined openly for him — it can only be worse when she takes the microscope to every facet of your relationship and then shares it with, oh, several kajillion strangers. And that is precisely what Stefani does on Return of Saturn, the much-anticipated followup to Kingdom.
The title refers to the turmoil of turning 30 (the same period of time it takes for Saturn to circle the Sun). Stefani (who, last I heard, still lived at home with her parents) passed that milestone last year. But for someone starting her fourth decade on this planet, she still has the emotional volatility and fragile self-esteem of a lovestruck 16-year-old. Apparently she wasn’t kidding — at heart, she really is just a girl. And every mood-swing, obsession and second-guess seems to go straight into her lyrics, which come off as a virtual diary of her hot-and-cold relationship with Rossdale.
Half the time, she’s cutting his head out of their pictures: “I kinda always knew I’d end up your ex-girlfriend,” she sneers on Ex-Girlfriend, a short, sharp shot of new wave guitar-rock. “You know it makes me sick to be on that list — but I should have thought of that before we kissed.” Five songs later, of course, all is forgiven and she’s writing her first name next to his last name in her notebook: “I wouldn’t mind if my name changed to Mrs.,” she hints coyly over the dreamy skank of Marry Me. “Will you be the one to marry me?” And if she can’t come by a betrothal honestly, well, a woman has other weapons in her arsenal, as Simple Kind of Life makes clear. “Sometimes I wish for a mistake,” she sighs. “You seem like you’d be a good dad.” (A word of advice, Gavin — RUN!)
What Kanal thinks of all this is anybody’s guess (though I bet it’s something along the lines of ‘Better him than me’). But you have to give him — along with guitarist Tom Dumont and drummer Adrian Young — props for not only weathering all Gwen’s personal storms but continuing to grow musically despite them. Return of Saturn, like other recent albums from former ska-punk acts, tones down the scritch-scratch guitars and herky-jerk beats that fuelled much of their early work. In their place, there’s more of the zippy, ’80s-style new wave that seems to be their second-biggest influence. To keep from coming off like a nostalgia act, they experiment with other styles, adding a dash of everything from flamenco guitars to trip-hoppy loops into the recipe. Reportedly, the band spent two years writing and recording this disc. It shows; musically, this is their finest hour, more varied, tasteful and (dare I say) mature than Tragic Kingdom.
Which brings me to one last reason to feel bad for Gavin. If there’s one thing that must be worse than having your girlfriend air your dirty laundry, it’s knowing she’s going to sell a jillion more albums than you ever could. Sorry, old boy.
Nickels For Your Nightmares
For a while there, it seemed like Hugh Dillon had gone totally Hollywood. But despite a string of acting roles in indie pix such as Dance Me Outside and Hard Core Logo — which even led to an audition for a role in Jackie Brown — the Headstones head maintains music is his first love. And if the off-the-cuff immediacy and raw, rough-and-tumble rock of his outfit’s fourth disc is any proof, I’m inclined to take him at his word. It seems the three years away from the stage have reinvigorated Hugh. Nickels’ 14 cuts simmer with the garage-band grit and spit and the punky, chunky guitar riffs of the other Stones’ classic album Some Girls — from the driving urban squall of opener Downtown and the breezy, midtempo guitar-and-harmonica ballads like Exhausted to the celebrity-skewering jangle of Above Ground Swimming Pools. Here and there, some beatboxes and loops lend a modern-rock edge to Dillon’s razor-blade style, but generally these tracks have a first-take feel and an unvarnished spontaneity (especially the improvised Brechtian skank of the title-track jam) that only add to their appeal. Hollywood’s loss is our gain.
Remember Caught by the Fuzz? Those who do will recall it as two minutes and 17 seconds of perfect, bratty British punk-pop from the three teen terrors in Supergrass. Well, now you can forget it. You won’t find anything with the same irreverent sass and punky spunk on this now-twentysomething trio’s third album. What you will find is yet another example of what happens to perfectly decent rock bands when they start believing their own hype and behaving like Serious Artists — the electric guitars get turned down to make room for acoustics and keyboards, the lead solos lose out to string sections, and the tunes get drowsier, droopier and drained of every bit of the brash exuberance that made the band popular in the first place. Well, maybe not every bit — the Bowiesque glam-pop of Pumping on Your Stereo shows the lads remember how to rock. Still, at times you wonder if they remember the chords to Caught by the Fuzz anymore.
3 Doors Down
The Better Life
Last time I heard a song with the word Kryptonite in the title was when Spin Doctors leapt to the top of the charts in a single bound. But it’s doubtful this Mississippi foursome’s debut — featuring the haunting boogie-metal of their K-word-titled single — will be hitting No. 1 faster than a speeding bullet. The fact is, 3 Doors Down’s odd sonic hybrid — dark, introspective vocals and guitar-crunch that occupies a weird no-man’s-land between Southern rock, post-grunge and roots-metal — isn’t exactly in line with the Britneys, Backstreets and Bizkits out there. And while it sometimes comes together magnificently — like on the burnished Southern gothic gem Life of my Own, the CD’s best track — mostly it sounds indecisive, as if they can’t choose between their mild-mannered alter ego and their all-powerful superhero guise. You get the sense they’re aiming for Days of the New; sometimes, they end up with a ticked-off Hootie. And that’ll kill your career like a pocketful of you-know-what.
Now that the ska-punk bandwagon seems to have run out of steam again, groups are scrambling to find new stylistic directions. Some, like Suicide Machines, have gone in for Offspring-style punk. Others like No Doubt have embraced their pop side. But SoCal’s Goldfinger seem to be having trouble deciding. Stomping Ground, their third full-length, is a mosh-pit mish-mash of hard-driving hardcore (End of the Day), earnest skate-punk (Pick a Fight), power pop (San Simeon), skank (Margaret Ann) and even crunch-metal (Carry On). And, as always with the G-men, there’s a hefty dose of goofballery in Donut Dan (a reworking of She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain) and a swaggering cover of 99 Red Balloons. Does the album rock? Sure, although frequently in a predictable manner. Would they be better off picking a style and sticking with it? Probably — but then they wouldn’t be Goldfinger.
When Teutonic dance-terrorists KMFDM abruptly called it quits in 1999, fans were surprised — until a few days later, when they reformed into the backwards-handled MDFMK. Actually, that’s not completely accurate. This comeback disc is really the work of just two members from the old lineup. Fittingly, it’s about half as good as a KMFDM disc. Their sound is still the same over-the-top speedball of glam, disco and metal, but it’s slightly slower, softer and laced with drum ‘n’ bass electronica grooves — KMFDM lite, if you will. The bright spot: New vocalist Lucia Cifarelli, whose sultry pipes add a few colours to the lads’ pitch-black palette. But if this gifted juke-joint jezebel does not prove to be their salvation, don’t be surprised to hear they’ve broken up and reformed as DKMFM. Or MMFKD … Or …
Posthumous albums from dead rappers are so plentiful these days they should have their own section in stores. But here’s the unique thing about the demise earlier this year of New York rhymer Big Pun — it wasn’t a drive-by bullet, but his 700-pound girth that stopped his heart. Naturally, it didn’t stop his career. Yeeeah Baby, nearly completed when he died, has been released to keep the Hispanic rapper’s memory alive. Frankly, it isn’t much of a legacy. Pun had a big, mush-mouthed voice and a distinctive rhyming style to match his size, but on these 16 standard gansta-rap tracks he doesn’t do much with them beyond the usual boasting, bellowing and beatdowns. Sure, when he inserts the chorus from Simple Minds’ Don’t You (Forget About Me) into one rap, it’s kind of poignant — all the more so because after Yeeeah Baby, many listeners probably will.
Opposite Of H2O
The opposite of water, of course, is fire. Which is what you’d expect from a rapper named Drag-On. And which makes it all the more surprising that this teenage protege of big dog DMX is anything but a fire-breathing blowhard. Despite his boasts to the contrary, Drag-On — whose government name is Mel Smalls, going by the songwriting credits — is more smoke than flame on this 19-track debut. True, his dark rasp does have the texture of a match strike. But it rarely ignites these fractured, Ruff Ryders-style jams into anything truly explosive. A few standout guest spots from labelmates DMX, Eve and The Lox are a plus, although they also highlight Smalls’ relative inexperience. Still, while he won’t be burning up the charts with this one, Drag-On definitely has a spark. Only time will tell if he he catches fire.
The Psychotic Friends Nuttwerx
Some bands are just too eclectic for their own good — none more so than the freaky funketeers of L.A.’s Fishbone, a group that hyperactively mixed metal, ska, punk, jazz, funk, soul, R & B and reggae (often in the same song). As a result, they’ve never been able to break out of cult-band jail during their 20-year career. Psychotic Friends Nuttwerx, their seventh full-length and first disc in four years, may be their best shot at going over the wall. Sure, they still play in every musical style known to man or alien — but here they do it pretty much one at a time, and one per song. Along with this more focused approach, some well-chosen covers (The Temptations’ Shakey Ground, Sly Stone’s Everybody is a Star) help, as does a truly bizarre lineup of guests — admit it, aren’t you curious to hear a song that features the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ivan Neville, Jeff (Skunk) Baxter AND Donny Osmond? Make no mistake, Fishbone are still way too eclectic. This time, though, it may be for their own good.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Blues at Sunrise
When he was alive, blues guitar god Stevie Ray Vaughan was frequently likened to Jimi Hendrix. The comparisons are even more apt a decade after his death. But I’m not referring to his playing. Like Jimi, Stevie Ray has become a posthumous cottage industry for his label, which continues to reconfigure, repackage and re-re-rerelease his four discs of studio material in various forms — being sure to enclose a new track here and there to keep the faithful reaching for their wallets. The theme this time: Slow blues. The familiar tracks: Ain’t Gone ‘N’ Give Up on Love from Soul to Soul, Texas Flood‘s Dirty Pool and so on. The treats: A live version of Tin Pan Alley with Johnny Copeland that was left off Live Alive; what sounds like a demo of The Sky is Crying from the Couldn’t Stand the Weather sessions; a live take of Texas Flood off the Live at the El Mocambo video; and the title cut, a jam with Albert Collins from last year’s In Session CD. The verdict: Sure, the extra tracks are magnificent, like pretty much every note Stevie played. But at a price of about a buck a minute for the all-new material, fans will be the ones singing the blues.
Despite their indecisive handle, these New York punks aren’t guys who do anything by half-measures. Look no further than Fanbelt Algebra, their sophomore album. With a dozen tracks that clock in at just over a half-hour, this is a full-throttle blast of classic American hardcore complete with chiming, churning guitars, gung-ho, take-no-prisoners pacing and emotionally inspirational lyrics that show there’s plenty of heart and soul behind all the beef and brawn. Of course, this hardly makes them unique; with their polka-punk pogo beats and Bad Religion-level intellect, Grey Area bear a striking sonic resemblance to zillions of other punk bands — including most of the Epitaph roster, come to think of it. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. With music ruled by cookie-cutter teen acts and interchangeable rap-metal ripoffs, Grey Area is a great place to take refuge.
The Ping-Pong EP
You’ve got to hand it to SNFU: After nearly 20 years, eight albums and innumerable cross-Canada van tours, these Edmonton-born punks still haven’t lost their edge. This new five-tracker bristles with the same skate-punk spunk, mosh-worthy guitar riffs and twisted lyrical humour that Ken (Mr. Chi Pig) Chin and the Belke brothers have been dishing up since 1984’s … And No One Else Wanted to Play. When it comes to work ethic, however, that’s another matter. More than half of the 25-minute Ping-Pong EP is just that — a recording of a lethargic table tennis match presumably held in the studio rec room. Next time, more work and less play might be better — but still, you gotta love a band that writes a song called Quentin Tarantino Can’t Act. Hey man, nice shot.
High Fidelity Soundtrack
What a concept: A soundtrack that actually has something to do with the movie. Instead of just collecting a bunch of pop and rap-metal B-sides, this disc for John Cusack’s romantic comedy about a record store owner is like a mix tape from that music-geek pal of yours with the basement full of wax. You’ve got underappreciated ’60s acts (13th Floor Elevators), lesser-known cuts From big stars (The Kinks’ Everybody’s Gonna Be Happy, Bob Dylan’s Most of the Time, two late-period Velvet Underground tracks), sensitive singer-songwriters (John Wesley Harding) and cool indie bands (Smog’s Cold Blooded Old Times, Stereolab’s Le Boob Oscillator, Royal Trux’s Inside Game, The Beta Band’s Dry the Rain). And every cut’s a keeper — even actor/Tenacious D singer Jack Black’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On. Buy the cassette, change the stickers and case and give it to a friend; then you can be that music-geek pal with impeccable taste.
“I hate my life,” are the first words Joe Pernice sighs on Everyone Else is Evolving, the leadoff track on his quietly wonderful Chappaquiddick Skyline CD. For a guy with such a gloomy message, he sure has a lovely way of getting it across. On this first pseudo-solo album, Pernice — formerly of alt-country heroes The Scud Mountain Boys and one-half of roots-popsters The Pernice Brothers — casts his jaundiced eye on life, love and relationships, with magically melancholy results. Imagine Elvis Costello or Elliott Smith singing Nick Drake songs arranged by Brian Wilson while being backed by Tindersticks and you kinda see where Pernice is headed. If you need more hints, titles like Leave Me Alone, Nobody’s Watching and Theme to an Endless Bummer might help. Not that he’s Mr. Misery — Pernice’s lyrical poignancy is balanced by an elegant framework of acoustic guitars, rootsy arrangements and gently flowing rhythms that give the whole affair a lulling, reassuring optimism. He may hate his world — but you’ll like it just fine, thanks very much.
Trembling Blue Stars
Broken By Whispers
Unless you’re a devotee of obscure British indie-pop acts and their family trees, you probably don’t know much about Field Mice or National Picture Library, two sweetly splendid bands Trembling Blue Stars leaders Bob Wratten previously fronted. No matter. All you really need to enjoy TBS — and their third album Broken by Whispers — is an appreciation for a winsomely melancholy melody, an achingly charming vocal line and well-crafted, intelligent pop masterpieces that run the gamut from folk to lounge and are garnished with graceful, refined orchestral flourishes. If that appeals to you — or if you’re a fan of likeminded artists such as Belle & Sebastian or St. Etienne — TBS and Wratten are worth getting to know better.