Two decades ago, it was a busy week for new music — albums from Don Henley, Eminem, Sonic Youth, Bad Religion, Matchbox Twenty, A Perfect Circle 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):
After 30 years, Don Henley has finally pulled over and left the fast lane. Though truth be told, it’s a change the Eagles co-founder and veteran hedonist has been edging towards for years. After he fled his Hotel California environs following the last big earthquake, Henley planted roots in his native Texas, married his longtime sweetheart, started a family, built a studio and generally began to act his age.
So think of his thoughtful, intimate new album Inside Job — his first release since 1989’s The End of the Innocence — as Life in the Slower Lane. Or at least Life in the More Contented Lane. “I hate to tell you this, but I’m very, very happy,” he confides on the breezy ballad Everything is Different Now, one of several tracks detailing his current state of domestic bliss. “I know that’s not what you’d expect from me at all.” Indeed it isn’t. Nor would you expect the author of Lyin’ Eyes, Victim of Love and After the Thrill is Gone to pen songs about his daughter (Annabel), his devotion (Nobody Else in the World But You) and his all-around satisfaction with life (My Thanksgiving). And you sure wouldn’t expect a Henley album to include a song destined for marriage ceremonies from now till doomsday — the tender For My Wedding. Could this really be the same guy who wrote Heartache Tonight?
Well, he’s presumably changed a lot since then. But as the rest of Inside Job makes clear, this is still the same Henley who wrote Dirty Laundry and The End of the Innocence. He may have a soft heart when it comes to love these days, but Don is still a hard-headed man when it comes to his other passionate dislikes — the shallowness of fame, the immorality of big business, the destruction of the environment and the selfish solipsism of our coddled society. On these topics, Henley doesn’t mince words. Sometimes he’s deadly serious, like on Goodbye to a River, when he blasts “these captains of industry and their tools on the hill — they’re killing everything divine.” Other times, he’s half-smiling, like when he disses alien-worshippers on They’re Not Here, They’re Not Coming: “Would they pile into the saucer, find Orlando’s rat and hug it? Go screaming through the universe just to get McNuggets? I don’t think so.” In Damn It Rose, he even hoists himself on his own petard with his description of an MTV star — “some puffed-up little fart, doing exactly what I used to do — pretensions to anarchy and art.”
For a guy sounding the cultural alarm, though, Henley hasn’t written the most energizing of battle cries. Ballads outweigh rockers by far; with the exception of the Stevie Wonder-driven funk of opening track Nobody Else in the World But You, nothing on Inside Job packs as much musical punch as, say, All She Wants to Do is Dance. And for a guy who’s been away so many years, he doesn’t seem to be brimming over with new ideas. These tender melodies, chilly grooves and ’80s-style productions — not to mention the disc’s reliance on actual instruments instead of synthesizers and computers — will be instantly familiar to Henley’s faithful; aside from a couple of contemporary-sounding drum loops, this could have been recorded 11 months after his last disc instead of 11 years. On the other hand, it’s kind of refreshing to hear from an artist secure enough with himself not to chase trends or bring in Puffy for a cameo. Some might hear Inside Job’s sound as dated; other will hear it as timeless.
For his part, I doubt Henley thinks of it much at all. Like plenty of aging boomers, these days he seems happy to cruise along in the car-pool lane, enjoying the drive while letting the hot-shot kids pass him by.
The Marshall Mathers LP
Nobody likes a whiner — especially a celebrity whiner. But that’s more or less what white-trash rap provocateur Marshall (Eminem) Mathers has turned into on his semi-self-titled sophomore album. “What do I think of success? It sucks,” says Mathers, claiming he “never knew I would get this big.” And apparently, the bigger they are, the harder they bawl. Obsessive fans, critics who “don’t get me,” record company weasels and anybody who doesn’t care for his potty-mouthed style — they’re are all fair game for Mathers’ prurient poison pen, along with fellow celebs from Christopher Reeve to Christina Aguilera. That is, when he isn’t reworking last year’s rhymes about raping his mother and killing his girlfriend over his mentor Dr. Dre’s bottom-heavy production. Sure, it has its moments — chiefly the stalker-fan tale Stan and the identity-crisis number The Real Slim Shady. And Em’s nasal voice and hyperkinetic delivery remain one of the most distinctive and dynamic deliveries in the game. Now he just has to stop acting like a sore winner.
NYC Ghosts & Flowers
Noise-rock legends Sonic Youth had all their customized gear stolen about a year ago. But rather than see it as an obstacle, guitarist Lee Ranaldo told me, the band took it as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. Maybe that’s why their new Metropolis-themed album NYC Ghosts and Flowers might remind you of the Sonic Youth of old. Retreating from the more accessible, song-oriented approach of much of their ’90s output, guitarists Thurston Moore and Ranaldo, bassist Kim Gordon and drummer Steve Shelley have re-connected with the free-flowing primitivism of earlier discs like Sister and EVOL. The dissonant alternate tunings, the primal drum beats, the icy tone poems, the brooding soundscapes that descend into squeals of feedback and instrument-abuse — they’re all in full effect here as SY pay tribute to the magnificent dystopia of New York on tracks like Free City Rhymes and Small Flowers Crack Concrete. OK, so none of these tracks equal Expressway To Yr. Skull. Still, this is their artiest, most uncompromising major-label disc in ages. Sonic Youth should get ripped off more often if albums like this are the result.
The New America
Bad Religion fans won’t need a secret decoder ring to figure out that the “Mr. Brett” who plays guitar on the bouncy punk anthem Believe It is band co-foudner Brett Gurewitz, who parted ways with the band back in 1994 after they left his Epitaph label for Atlantic. But his welcome cameo is as close as The New America gets to the fury and power of these long-serving punk idealists’ past glory. Like each of their last few albums, The New America is slicker and tighter than its predecessor — and slightly less satisfying. Produced by Todd Rundgren — no, really — these 13 tracks are the band’s poppiest and most commercial yet, emphasizing ear-catching melodies, corset-tight harmonies and big choruses. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Still, for a disc packed with galloping pogo-punk drums, grinding guitars and Greg Graffin’s literate, righteously angry lyrics, this is a surprisingly bloodless affair better suited to the FM dial than an all-ages club. Depending on your view, New America is the sound of punk growing up — or growing old.
This Time Around
Much as you hate to, you have to give Hanson credit. First, for writing MmmBop, the best kiddie-pop single since the Jacksons were a family. And second, for wisely not trying to duplicate it on This Time Around, their long-awaited studio followup to 1997’s Middle of Nowhere (their other discs have been a Christmas album, a live CD and a collection of pre-fame tracks). Instead, these teen-pop prodigies try to do a little growing up with a set of self-penned songs that trade in everything from wah-wah funk to turntable-scratch hip-hop and anthemic roots-rock. Do they pull it off? Well, kinda — to be honest, even with the help of VIPs like guitarist Jonny Lang and Blues Traveler frontman John Popper, these kids simply haven’t lived enough to play the blues or sing about infidelity. Still, better this than another band of Backstreet clones. Hanson may not have another megahit, but if they keep this up, they might have something most boy bands don’t — a career that outlasts a carton of milk.
It doesn’t seem like it’s been four years since Matchbox 20’s first album, Yourself or Someone Like You. Maybe that’s because the disc didn’t really take off until 1997, when Push became a hit — and after that it never went away, lingering on the charts for more than a year and eventually selling 10 million copies. Now, as befits the kings of alterna-rock, the lads have become ridiculous and self-indulgent. First, they’ve traded in their number and lower-cased their name. Second, and more importantly, they’ve gone off the deep end on the insanely overproduced Mad Season. Yourself’s alterna-folk simplicity and earnest provided much of its charm; here they’ve been replaced — or at least deluged — by layer upon layer of excess. String sections, multiple overdubs, precision harmonies — it all adds up to a bigger production than Cats. Something tells me Mad Season might pass rather quickly.
A Perfect Circle
Mer de Noms
Who says being a roadie is a thankless job? it sure paid off for Billy Howerdel. While working as a guitar tech for Tool, he played his home-studio alterna-rock compositions for singer Maynard Keenan — who was impressed enough to pen lyrics, recruit musicians and re-record the tracks that eventually became Mer de Noms (Sea of Names). For Maynard, it’s probably a nice change. Howerdel’s stylishly textured modern rock favours orchestral gloom and romantic passion over Tool’s Eastern European post-industrial bashing. Not that A Perfect Circle don’t crank up and grind away on occasion — Thomas in particular has the sludgy dissonance and gothy vibe of a ghostly Type O Negative. A Perfect Circle may not quite as precisely flawless as its handle, but it has an elegant beauty Tool could never match.
Electronica and hip-hop DJs are already a pretty faceless lot, but this British outfit takes it to a whole new level. An outgrowth of the Coldcut collective, DJ Food is basically a group whose members and sound change with virtually every release. For this incarnation, Food’s chefs are two blokes named Patrick Carpenter — aka PC — and Strictly Kev. And oh man, do they cook on Kaleidoscope. With the laid-back, whacked-out excess of Fatboy Slim under the influence of a handful of downers and a shelf of Raymond Chandler novels, Kaleidoscope’s dozen tracks are a multi-course feast of acid-laced hip-hop and freak-out sound collages — pool balls, spoken-word records, blazing bongos, lumpy standup bass lines, poetry from Chicago’s Ken Nordine, squealing tires, doppler-effect car horns and just about any other sonic snippet you can imagine all get sliced and diced Ginsu-style into a cinematic cornucopia of cool for your consumption. Turn on, tune in and feed your head.
If Beck ever went on Ritalin, he might end up like the boys in Gomez. A quintet of British white boys who sound like a troupe of Delta bluesmen, Gomez share the B-boy’s passion for fusing American folk blues to hip-hop grooves. But with typical British restraint, they lack Beck’s neon-coloured disco-ball lunacy, preferring to render their meandering, mesmerizing grooves with subtler tones and more languid styles of their two albums, Bring it On and Liquid Skin. And on this rootsy, laid-back set of five new tunes, it doesn’t get any more languid than The Dajon Song, a 13-minute, post-psychedelic hit of Doorsy blues that lazily rocks like a hammock on a hot summer evening. If their next LP mines this sort of mellow gold, well, bring it on, boys.
Another 5 Songs and a Poem
In the two years since this former Winnipegger released her I Bificus album, she’s become punk’s latest It Grrrl. But, since I Bificus didn’t really take off Stateside until last year, it’s probably going to be a while before those of us north of the 49th hear a new album from the Bettie Page-coiffed, tattoo-laden vocalist. Hence this stopgap EP, which features two of her power-poppy tracks from the U.S. version of Bificus (I Died and Twitch); another from the MTV Celebrity Deathmatch album (Vampire); a remixed version of Lucky; a too-reverent cover of Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It; and a Henry Rollins-style rant about the hypocrisy of society (which might seem pretty ironic coming from a punk with a major-label record deal). That oughta hold ya.
Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise
Time to Discover
It sounds like the plotline to a direct-to-video movie: A Detroit rock band hears a blind street musician busking outside their recording studio, invites him in to jam, and the next thing you know, they have a big-time record deal and a video on MTV. But believe it or not, it’s the true back story for Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise, an awe-inspiring outfit that combines slick Detroit grooves with gritty southern blues. Alabama-born and blind since birth, vocalist Blackwater has a rough rasp and a soul man delivery that splits the difference between between Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield. Behind him, the band shucks and jives in a rootsy way that suggests Booker T & The MG’s jamming with The Band. Sound good? On this appropriately titled sophomore disc, it is — and then some. Cheesy plot or no, Time to Discover gets two thumbs way up.
Family Values Tour 1999
I’ve always assumed the title of this annual Korn-fed touring rock fest was ironic. Maybe Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst didn’t get the joke — on the back of this live CD from last year’s tour, the Bizkithead pens a mini-essay lecturing parents to “be careful of the things our kids are exposed to.” Would that include Durst’s call-to-violence Break Stuff, which kicks off this 14-tracks disc? Ah, well, let’s not be too hard on Freddie — after all, his somewhat misguided PSA may be the most entertaining thing on this disc. It’s certainly more memorable than this set lethargic, soundalike tracks from Primus, Staind, Filter, Bizkit and Korn. Aside from token rappers Method Man and Redman and token electronica act Crystal Method, most of the bands wallow in the same mosh pit of mediocrity, grinding out identical detuned sludge-metal riffs and bellowing sinister goth-rock lyrics over cliche rapcore beats. Now this is truly something no kid should be exposed to.
Diet For a New America
Apparently, Mötley Crüe isn’t keeping bassist Nikki Sixx busy these days. Or perhaps he just got tired of shout, shout, shouting at the devil. Either way, Sixx makes a U-turn from his trademark mascara-metal with his new side project 58, a modern-rock studio outfit co-led by former Boxing Gandhi Dave Darling and named after the year they were both born. Apparently aiming for a midpoint between David Bowie and Trent Reznor, Sixx and Darling (augmented by a drummer and one of The Bee Gees’ kids on guitar) weave groovy glam melodies around chilly, cybernetic beatboxes, samples and synths. The resulting glam-hop soundscapes have their moments — particularly the hummable Piece of Candy, which takes a walk on the wild side of the Web, and the electonic blues-rock of Song to Slit Your Wrists By. Still, like most studio-rat releases, this is more about high-concept knob-twiddling than old-fashioned songwriting. Don’t quit your night job, Nikki.
Kristi Johnston Band
That Would Be Fine
Listening to Winnipeg blues guitarist and singer Kristi Johnston’s impressive debut album, it’s impossible not to think of Bonnie Raitt. But not the current model Raitt. With her joyfully raw vocals and skilled, emotive playing, Johnston is more like Raitt circa ’74 — a gifted journeywoman for whom the blues is as much a lifestyle as a musical one. That Johnston has steeped herself in the music is evident both in the wide-ranging styles of her well-crafted originals (Train jumps from a jazzy swing to a bouncy blues; If I Ain’t Got is a rough-and-tumble Mississippi stomper in the mold of R.L. Burnside; The Moose is Loose boasts the fancy funky fretwork of greasy Texas blues) and the due respect she shows cover tunes (Sonny Boy Williamson’s Eyesight to the Blind is delivered with an authentic Chicago bounce; Jimmy Rogers’ That’s All Right gets a wonderfully languid, smoky treatment). Better catch Johnston around town while you still can. Once the disc gets around, we might not see much of her.
Eye of the Cyclops
It’s no accident the Beastie Boys called on Mixmaster Mike Schwartz to be their DJ. In a scene full of beat-biters and copycats, this Bay Area turntablist continues to be a one-of-a-kind. His latest EP Eye of the Cyclops — 11 tracks that form a four-part megmix inspired by everything from cheap detective shows and Japanese movies to Star Wars — has all he innovative beats, inspired blends and supersonic scratching of his last full-length Anti-Theft Device. Plus it also shows off the traits that really separate him from the wack pack and undoubtedly endear him to the Beasties: His clever sense of humour (Trashcan’s backbeat sounds like just that; Harsky & Starch goofs on funky ’70s private eye themes) and his musical approach to his medium. Whether he’s using his stylus as a lead guitar or speed-flicking the crossfader as a poor man’s tremolo, Mike’s world-class skills are more than enough to pay the bills.
Singles Collection Vol. 1: ’96 – ’97
If Dropkick Murphys’ blistering recent Punk-O-Rama performance has whetted your appetite for another taste of this Boston outfit’s high-octane Irish-pub punk — and you already own a copy of their last album The Gang’s All Here — you could do worse than pick up this new compilation of early and obscure tracks. First off, half of it’s live, which makes it a perfect purchase for those who dug their high-energy show. Second, it’ll help you understand why they’ve been described as a cross between a punky Pogues and a Celtic Clash — along with 18 or so original tracks packed with whoa-ho anthems, street gang vocals and beer bottle percussion, the lads toss in covers of Career Opportunities, Guns of Brixton, White Riot and Billy’s Bones. Third, they also play AC/DC’s TNT. This won’t help you understand anything about the band. But it sure rocks like hell.