Two decades ago, new albums from The Who, Jimmy Page & The Black Crowes, Cypress Hill 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):
Jimmy Page & The Black Crowes
Live at the Greek
Live: The Blues to the Bush / 1999
For a bunch of ’60s rock dinosaurs, The Who and Jimmy Page are a long way from extinct — and in fact, they seem to be evolving. No, Pete Townshend hasn’t decided to get knuckle tattoos, pierce his eyebrow and start playing rap-core. Nor has Page shaved his head and traded in his double-neck SG and sunburst Les Paul for a pair of Technics 1200s and a sampler. Fans can rest assured these guitar heroes are still mining the same muscular blues-rock vein they’ve been tapping since back when Woodstock was a counter-culture event.
The difference is, now they’re doing it in cyberspace. Both The Who and Page recently became the biggest musical heavyweights to leap headlong into the Internet waters and release music exclusively online. If you want to get your hands on either performer’s new live album, you’ll have to visit online retailer Musicmaker, place your order and wait a week or so for the disc to land in your mailbox. But if that’s the bad news, here’s the good: For about $20 US plus shipping, you can get an entire double album — or for roughly $1 per track, you can pick and choose tracks for your own custom-made CD, which gets mailed to you the next day complete with jewel case, booklet and liner notes. Before you order, you can download and sample tracks free. And unlike MP3 and Napster, it’s all 100% legit.
How do the discs stack up against what you find on the racks? On the musical front, pretty darn good. Page’s 19-track offering in particular is a must-have for Led Zep fans. Recorded last fall in L.A., Live at the Greek is in many ways a better Zeppelin live album than Zeppelin ever issued. Page’s playing is leaner, cleaner and meaner than it ever was in his drug-addled glory days. Likewise the performance of backing band The Black Crowes, who tackle hammer-of-the-gods classics like Heartbreaker, Custard Pie, Lemon Song and What Is and What Should Never Be with a perfect combination of reverence and reinterpretation. And for a guy who has endured countless comparisons to Rod Stewart, singer Chris Robinson sure gives Robert Plant a run for his money here. Yes, sometimes they sound like a Zep cover band — but they’re the best damn Zep cover band you ever heard.
The Who, on the other hand, remain the real deal. The 20-song Blues to the Bush — taped last winter at Chicago’s House of Blues and in Shepherd’s Bush (hence the title) — finds the surviving trio of guitarist Townshend, vocalist Roger Daltrey and bassist John Entwistle in fine form, recreating a career’s worth of tracks with a passion, grandeur and sheer sonic wallop they haven’t had since Keith Moon was in the drummer’s chair (credit should go to Ringo Starr’s son Zak Starkey, who does a tremendous job of filling Moon’s mighty shoes). Along with the expected hits — I Can’t Explain, Substitute, Magic Bus, Baba O’Riley, Pinball Wizard, Won’t Get Fooled Again — the lads augment their set list with some nifty chestnuts like Entwistle’s Boris the Spider and My Wife, You Better You Bet and Pure & Easy. Best of all: They can still play My Generation without making you wince at the “Hope I die before I get old” line. Tickets for these shows reportedly went for up to $300; like Townshend once said, I’d call that a bargain. As is the price of this disc — even if it does kinda resemble a bootleg.
Which brings me to the only area where Musicmaker doesn’t compete with major-label product: packaging. The cover art of The Who disc is pretty uninspired, and the layout inside is somewhat amateurish (I can’t comment on the Page disc since it came without a booklet, though maybe that’s a comment in and of itself). Other problem with the custom-CD format: Presumably to accommodate the custom-made orders, there’s no track list with the mass-printed liner notes; and each track fades out during the applause, breaking the flow of the show. But in the end, that’s just nitpicking. Cosmetic quibbles aside, both discs are as good as anything you’d get at your local big-box outlet. And you can buy ’em in your underwear. If that isn’t a step up the evolutionary ladder, I don’t know what is.
Skull & Bones
Want proof that grass destroys your ambition? Just fire up this new double-disc joint from hemp-happy hip-hoppers Cypress Hill. Once the most potent potheads in rap — their first two discs were tightly packed with hits such as Insane in the Brain, I Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That and How I Could Just Kill a Man — on Skull and Bones it seems the L.A. quartet has got high on its own supply once too often. Between the bass-heavy beats and ominous synth lines of the first disc, all of these tracks are just watered-down musical flashbacks to tunes you’ve heard before — and with better lyrics than these half-baked rhymes. As for the second disc, well, put it this way: If there’s one thing the world needs less than another rap-metal record, it’s a rap-metal record from Cypress Hill. This is why they call it dope, kids.
Ego Trip’s The Big Playback
Every rap fan who knows Marley Marl from Marky Mark should own a copy of Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists, an irreverent hip-hop refence guide that catalogs everything from The First 10 Platinum Rap Albums to Eight Songs About Body Odour. It’s one of the the few books I’ve read that deserves its own soundtrack. Thankfully, the folks at Ego Trip Magazine had the same idea. The Big Playback is the groovalicious result. Get out your Adidas, dust off your Kangol and breakdance back into the ’80s with these vintage slices of body-rockin’ rhyme and rhythm from slept-on acts like Divine Force, The Bizzie Boys and The Alliance. No gunshots, no gangsters, no gore — just samplers, scratching and solid-gold musical skills from back in the day when rap was more than a marketing stance. The Big Playback tops my playlist.
Medeski, Martin & Wood
Although best known as organ-jazz funketeers, New York’s Medeski, Martin & Wood started out as a piano-led trio — the organ was just easier to cart around on tour. Now that they presumably can pay roadies to hoist the baby grand, MMW have stripped away the fatback and returned to their original configuration for live gigs, including this enticing set taped at NYC’s Tonic club. But while the instruments are traditional, their approach isn’t — as their mournful, dirgey version of Hey Joe makes wonderfully clear. For the most part, though, this eight-song set switches between new originals and classic covers like John Coltrane’s Your Lady and Bud Powell’s Buster Rides Again. Frankly, it’s tough to tell the diff — Medeski’s stabbing chords and tinkling melodies, not to mention the lumpy, churning post-bop of the rhythm section, give everything a lean, muscular flavour that goes perfectly with a glass of scotch and a smoke. Even unplugged, these guys are electrifying.
Engines of Creation
Guitar guru Joe Satriani’s dexterous digits have been his bread and butter for years. But now, for the first time, he’s taking his digits into the digital revolution. On his 10th album, the former guitar teacher to the stars — whose ex-students include Steve Vai and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett — has taught himself a thing or two about electronic music. Plugging in his keyboard and mouse next to his guitar amp and jacking into cyberspace, Satriani downloads 11 hard-driving tracks constructed from complex drum ’n’ bass beatboxes and futuristic techno instrumentation. Naturally, there’s still plenty of Satriani’s trademark, piercing guitar shredding. What there isn’t enough of, however, is innovation — most of these tracks cover the same ground John Paul Jones and Vai have been surveying for years. It’s far from a case of garbage in, garbage out, but Satriani’s Engines could use an upgrade.
Bankruptcy, lawsuits, countersuits, an ego-bruising stint in Beauty and the Beast to pay the bills — after the last couple of tough years, diminutive diva Toni Braxton could really use a new hit to unbreak her heart for real. She just might get it in He Wasn’t Man Enough, the Latin-flavoured leadoff track from her slinky new album The Heat. True to the title, Braxton keeps things steamy and sweaty here, exchanging her patented girly ballads for earthy, erotic hip-hop grooves like Gimme Some and the title track and smoky-voiced soul stirrers like Just Be a Man About It. Too bad she decides to throw two insipid ballads from shlockmistress Diane Warren into the mix. After the rest of The Heat’s simmering sensuality, Warren’s hackneyed cheese just leaves you cold.
Bedhead Loved Macha
Macha Loved Bedhead
This EP reminds me of a line from deadpan comic Steven Wright: ‘It’s a small world — but I wouldn’t want to paint it.’ I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s because this five-track affair is a collaboration between two sets of brothers from two of indie-rock’s cooler outfits — dearly departed slo-core pioneers Bedhead and deservedly acclaimed ethno-rockers Macha — who just happened to grow up together in some Texas town you probably never heard of. Or maybe it’s because these dreamy, experimental tunes, which were assembled piece by piece over the last year on tapes the siblings mailed to each other, have the swirling, sandy textures and haunting, evocative beauty of a Van Gogh. Then again, maybe it has to do with their jokey minimalist rendition of Cher’s Believe for touch-tone phone keypad and cheap voicebox. Whatever. Bedhead loved Macha, Macha loved Bedhead, and if you like either of them, you’ll love this.
More like Roach Against the Machine. This SoCal foursome is just another one of the endless plague of rap-metal outfits that have multiplied like vermin and come crawling out of the woodwork in the past couple of years. And just as you can’t tell one roach from another, it’s tough to discern these guys from their multitudinous brethren. Grinding, metallic guitars? Check. Screeching leads? Check. Thundering hip-hop drums? Check. Gruffly barked rap vocals? Check. Soaring, Faith No More-style choruses? Check. Sure, on Infest — their major-label debut after four indie albums — these guys can hit the marks as well as any other rapcore outfit. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to get squished.
Heavy Metal 2000
Considering its name, the soundtrack for the 1981 animated feature Heavy Metal wasn’t exactly a headbanging affair from start to finish. Sure, it included Black Sabbath, B.O.C. and Grand Funk. But even back in those pre-Metallica days, Donald Fagen, Don Felder and Stevie Nicks weren’t exactly headbanger fare. On the companion disc to the new sequel, however, the entrance requirements seem a little stricter. Still, the dozen-and-a-half tunes do manage to cover the full range of modern metal, from the comic-book space-rock of Monster Magnet and the disco grind of MDFMK to the sludge-rawk of Pantera, the raunchy rap-metal of Insane Clown Posse, the riffy punk of System of a Down and even the Latino thrash of Puya. If the movie rocks half this hard, save me a seat.
In the primordial ooze of post-punk rock, new hybrids are always bubbling to the surface. One week it’s a band that crosses X and Tom Waits; the next week offers the offspring of the Sex Pistols and R.E.M. But trying to trace San Francisco glam-punk quintet Vue’s family tree is like mapping out the human genome. Driven by walloping, primal drums and pumping keyboards that bolster singer/guitarist Rex Shelverton’s throbbing riffs and reverb-drenched punkabilly yelp, Vue is equal parts dark decadence and razor-blade intensity. Sort of like Iggy meets Bowie … meets Jim Morrison … meets Suicide … meets The Fall … meets Nick Cave … meets The Velvet Underground … meets Bauhaus … meets The Cramps. If any of those bands are in your CD collection, you might want to meet Vue for yourself.
The Virgin Suicides
Despite being an indie art-house flick that hasn’t even been released yet, The Virgin Suicides has already spawned two, count ’em, two, soundtracks. A couple of months back, French disco-tronic duo Air released a disc featuring their dream-pop score for the Sofia Coppola-directed film set in the ’70s. Now, here comes the disc of Music From the Motion Picture — ie., the cover tunes album. And decent covers they are: mostly immortal vintage tracks from the likes of Heart (Magic Man, Crazy on You), Todd Rundgren (Hello, It’s Me, A Dream Goes on Forever), The Hollies (The Air That I Breathe), 10CC (I’m Not in Love) and the like, along with a track from ’70s soundalikes Sloan (Everything You’ve Done Wrong, one of five tunes the contributed to the pic) and a pair of extra Air tracks that didn’t make the cut for their disc. None of them will become your reason for living, but hey, they are all tunes that deserve a second life.
The Death of Quickspace
How long is a pop song? In British space-punk quintet Quickspace’s world, as long as it needs to be — whether that amounts to 31 seconds or 11 minutes. You’ll find tunes that short and that long — not to mention pretty much every size in between — on Quickspace’s fifth album, a disc that answers the musical question, what would it sound like if Sonic Youth and Can got together and tried to write songs for Stereolab? The answer, in three words: Pretty damn cool. Fronted by former Faith Healer guitarist/singer Tom Cullinan, who plays John Doe to punky crooner Nina Pascale’s Exene, Quickspace’s tense, dense sound — a hypnotic trance of equal parts droning guitar buzz, butterfly-wing melodies and dreamy femme fatale vocals — sits a little to the left of space rock, just this side of noise rock and right on the edge of shoegazing. No matter how long the songs are, they seem to take up the perfect amount of space.
The Very Best of …
Late at Night
Hurtin’ Country Songs
Ratpacking Vegas lounge lizard, suave Top 40 balladeer, tipsy movie and TV comic — during his long career, Dean Martin crafted more personas than an ID forger. Four years after his death, each of them gets the star treatment in a new series of compilation albums. Dino the tuxedo-clad crooner — the cat who purred Everybody Loves Somebody on the tube — is the star of The Very Best of Dean Martin, a grandma-friendly set of saccharine, string-swept singles such as You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You, That’s Amore and Little Ole Wine Drinker, Me. Of course, when Dino hit the vino, you just know he loosened up as fast as his tux tie — and that’s the dude who comes out to play on Late at Night. Along with a mellow-guitar version of Everybody, this disc captures Martin in a relaxed, last-set-of-the-night vibe, gently gliding his velvet pipes through timeless treats by the likes of Johnny Mercer (Dream) and Rogers and Hart (It’s Easy to Remember), set to a series of hip, jazz-combo backdrops. But nothing is hipper — in an it’s-so-ridiculously-kitschy-it’s-cool way — than Hurtin’ Country Songs. Here, Dean ditches the sharkskin for buckskin and a Stetson, and good-naturedly goofs off on uncharacteristically twangy cuts including Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, Kris Kristofferson’s Make The World Go Away and Bob Wills’ My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You. The biggest surprise of all? It works — his slurry, smirking style works just as well on Walk On By as it did on Melancholy Baby. Ain’t that a kick in the head?
1982 – 2000
OK, let’s say you’re a European hair-metal band. Your only hit single was a bombastic slice of ’80s synth-rock cheese called the Final Countdown. How do you put out a Greatest Hits album and cash in when you only had one hit? Simple; you call it 1982 – 2000 to make it sound significant. You make sure it has that single. Then you toss in a bunch of your old tracks nobody would recognize if you put a gun to their head, and add some “previously unreleased” tracks, like anybody would ever know the difference. Oh, and to sound contemporary — and cover up the fact that the most recent song here is from 1991 — you get somebody to remix that hit single to a Eurodisco beat and call it The Final Countdown 2000. That’s what you do. And this is what you get:
Defining Moments (Volume One)
For those who may have missed prog-rockers Saga the first time around, trust me: This band of Canuck Yes-men didn’t exactly set the world on fire. The closest things they had to hits were Cat Walk, Wind Him Up and On the Loose, all of which snuck into radio through the back door during the deep, dark days of the new-wave ’80s — and all of which are included on this 15-track retrospective, along with a dozen other tunes I couldn’t identify if my life depended on it. If you want to know the truth, the banks of symphonic synthesizers, the emotionless, too-tight musicianship, the guitar-instruction solos and the Jon Anderson-meets-Geddy Lee vocals are the real defining moments of Saga’s story. They don’t need a Volume Two to make that point.