Two decades ago, new albums from XTC, Alice Cooper, Duran Duran, Royal Trux 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):
Wasp Star: Apple Venus Volume Two
What a difference a year makes. A little over 12 months ago, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding — the two remaining members of new wave pop wonders XTC — were in the midst of a comeback of Elvis-in-Vegas proportions. Apple Venus Volume One, their first album after a seven-year strike against their former record label Virgin, was quite rightly heralded as a pop masterpiece. Advance copies had fetched hundreds of dollars on eBay. Critics were already pronouncing the set of splendidly crafted “orchcoustic” pop one of the year’s best CDs. Expectations for Volume 2 — an electric sequel slated for the fall — were ridiculously high.
Well, after the usual music business delays (some of which were reportedly caused by Apple Venus’s unexpected runaway success), the long-awaited Wasp Star has finally arrived. It snuck onto the record racks a few weeks back, without all the hype, hoopla and hysteria that greeted its predecessor. And with good reason: Next to the indisputable flawlessness of Apple Venus, Wasp Star is shockingly, disappointingly and somewhat annoyingly average.
It’s hard to believe, but it seems true: After seven years of woodshedding, writing and waiting, Partridge (the duo’s main songwriter) only managed to come up with enough great songs to make one album. And he used most of them up on Apple Venus. None of Wasp Star’s 12 tracks possess the same spark of eccentric genius as Volume One‘s Your Dictionary or the same inspired beauty as River of Orchids, I’d Like That or Knights in Shining Karma. For the most part, these tunes just feel like leftovers from the back of Partridge’s desk — lighter, poppier tunes that weren’t quite good enough to make the cut last time around.
Of course, having said that, it must be noted that XTC’s castoffs are still better than most band’s keepers. Even at their rustiest, Partridge and Moulding remain two of popdom’s smartest and most gifted tunesmiths, equally adept at simple, superficial pop (the jaunty, jangly Stupidly Happy) and complex, literate songcraft (the rich, strummy two-stepper The Wheel and the Maypole). And when it comes to bitter irony and sour grapes, nobody can hold a candle to Partridge, who continues to turn the lemons of his failed marriage into the lemonade of pop tunes like The Man Who Murdered Love, a McCartney-esque blast of sugary bile that is the album’s centrepiece, single and finest track. Half the pop bands out there wish they could write songs half this good. And for those bands, Wasp Star would be a triumph.
Unfortunately, XTC isn’t most bands. And once you’ve achieved perfection — as they have time and again, from Making Plans for Nigel all the way up to Your Dictionary — anything less just feels like failure. Better luck next year.
It would be easy to make some crack about how Brutal Planet lives up to its name. But it just wouldn’t be right. Frankly, this umpteenth disc from the former Vince Furnier isn’t brutally bad. Not that it’s good, either. In fact, that’s the problem: Brutal Planet really isn’t … well, much of anything. Just another 11 slices of the same horror-rock cheese Alice has been feeding us for the past decade. Like an old fighter who doesn’t know when he’s beat, the Coop continues to go through the motions, sneering and leering along to a bunch of bloodless power-chord rockers lifted wholesale from the last Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson albums. On It’s The Little Things, he even name-checks Welcome To My Nightmare and No More Mr. Nice Guy. Maybe he wants to remind us how great he is; he only reminds us how much better those tunes are than anything he’s done lately.
Spirit / Light / Speed
Pure Cult: The Singles 1984-1995
There’s no shortage of people who always considered The Cult to be a second-rate AC/DC–Zep knockoff fronted by a so-so Jim Morrison wannabe. So naturally, they haven’t exactly been waiting with bated breath for more from the bandmembers — especially not after hearing them do a Diane Warren shlock-ballad on the aptly titled Gone in 60 Seconds soundtrack. Still, even they might be impressed with these offerings from Crystal Gayle-tressed vocalist Ian Astbury and his punky guitar-god partner Billy Duffy. First and foremost is Astbury’s powerful new solo disc Spirit / Light / Speed. This 10-tracker indulges his shamanistic side (and The Cult’s earlier, tripper incarnation) in a series of hypnotic, propulsive grooves that eschew the metal-pop trappings for an electronic-based rock oeuvre. Imagine music that’s equal parts Primal Scream, The Tragically Hip and Sympathy for the Devil and you’re up to Speed. For something a bit more familiar, try the reissued Pure Cult. Along with the usual hits (She Sells Sanctuary, Fire Woman, Love Removal Machine, Lil’ Devil, etc.), this version updates the 1993 release of the same name, dropping a couple of duds and adding three more recent tracks from their thunderously heavy 1995 self-titled disc. If that new Cult CD packs this kind of wallop — not to mention Astbury’s transcendent vision — some folks might be converted.
This is not your older sister’s Duran Duran. Now down to two original members — pouty singer Simon LeBon and foppish keyboardist Nick Rhodes — the group has long outgrown its status as teen-idol heartthrobs. But while they’re undeniably older and fleshier, they also seem a bit wiser. Belying its title, their 12th studio album Pop Trash isn’t their usual throwaway disco fluff. Instead, LeBon, Rhodes and current guitarist Warren Cuccurullo have turned their rock-star worldview around on itself, fashioning a dozen glittery baubles of funky electronic pop that eyeball kitsch, beauty, sex, drugs and the warping effect of celebrity. An overabundance of sombre, lush ballads is the only downside here. Otherwise, Duran’s Trash could be many fans’ treasure.
Pound For Pound
Ten years ago, odds were pretty good that junkie-rock lowlifes Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty wouldn’t make it to their next gig, never mind their next album. Just look at ’em now, though. These days, their long-running band Royal Trux — of which they are the only constant members — is one of indie rock’s most consistent (and consistently satisfying) acts. Pound for Pound, their ninth studio album, continues that trend. Like every other RTX disc, it’s a sludgy amalgam of Glimmer Twins boogie-rock, low-rent blaxploitation funk and psychotropic soul, fuelled by Hagerty’s noisy guitar throttling and Herrema’s sneering, nanny-goat bray — all filtered through a cough-syrup haze of knob-twiddling, what-the-hell-does-this-button-do? production. It’s a little tighter than recent efforts — perhaps due to their healthier lifestyle and burgeoning production career under the pseudonyms Adam and Eve, Jenny and Neil are less rambling and shambling than they used to be. But it still kicks hell out of most everything else out there. Pound for Pound, they’re still the champs.
Six By Seven
The Closer You Get
No matter how you figure it, it just doesn’t add up. Six By Seven have five members. They’ve been together for nine years after forming in Nottingham. This is their second album, the followup to 1998’s The Things We Make. That one had 10 songs; this one has 12. On both albums, songwriting is obviously their No. 1 priority. Their three main ingredients: hypnotically droning psychedelic guitars, archly black lyrics and a healthy dose of white noise, all whipped into a maelstrom of post-grunge Britrock closer to Radio-head than Oasis. Their two best song titles: Sawn Off Metallica T-Shirt and Ten Places to Die. Nope, it just don’t figure. But maybe that’s the point — these guys don’t play by the numbers, and that’s what makes The Closer You Get more than just the sum of its parts.
The Greatest Gift
This Welsh outfit don’t have much luck with names. First they called themselves Travis, Inc. — until the other Travis made a fuss. Then they tried Applecore, which didn’t go over with The Beatles’ label. Now, they’ve nicked part of the title of Monte Hellman’s spaghetti western China 9, Liberty 37. At least it fits a little better with their aggressive style. Yes, that’s right, Liberty 37 is that rarest of entities — a U.K. rock band that actually, undeniably rocks. This debut disc overflows with big crunching guitars, big ringing riffs, big anthemic choruses, big ideas and big emotions. Not to mention the big voice of singer Ishmael Lewis, who isn’t afraid to shout himself raw on occasion. Add in his earnestly intense (if somewhat grandiose) lyrics and soaring delivery, and you’ve got a slightly heavier, somewhat slicker Pearl Jam, crossed with old U2. Don’t look that gift horse in the mouth.
Excuses For Travellers
The name Mojave 3 makes you think of some desert-rat stoner-rock trio, doesn’t it? Not even close. This 3 are, in fact, five — an artsy British folkadelic quintet led by Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell, formerly of shoegazer outfit Slowdive. The name isn’t a total deception, though. For one thing, the band did start off as a trio. But more importantly, Halstead the songwriter would be right at home on the range. His bittersweet country-tinged tunes drift along on quiet breezes of melody, gently prodded by acoustic guitar strumming and plaintive peals of pedal steel and accompanied by his own dry, dusty whisper and Goswell’s high, lonesome harmony. Call it cowboy-bootgazing pop.
A couple of discs back, it was Tom Waits. Last time around, it was Joni Mitchell and The Beatles. Slowly but surely, jazz diva Holly Cole is evolving into a pop crooner. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. This time out, Holly continues to go lightly, covering ’70s tunesmiths like Paul Simon (an elastic, bluesy version of One Trick Pony) and Randy Newman (sparse, haunting takes on Ghosts and Same Girl) next to the usual slate of tunes from the likes of Sammy Cahn (Come Fly With Me), Cole Porter (Don’t Fence Me In) and Johnny Mercer (That Old Black Magic). But nothing is as magical as her dark, torchy version of the ’50s hit Dedicated to the One I Love, which she delivers with a breathy sultriness The Shirelles never dreamed of. Never mind another Stephen Sondheim cover; I’d like to hear a whole CD of girl-group covers. How about it, Holly?
What you need: Isaac Hayes’ crisply re-recorded, faithful-down-to-the-last-right-on! remake of his own classic ’70s blaxploitation theme — even if it is impossible to hear his voice these days without picturing his South Park alter-ego. What you don’t need: R. Kelly, OutKast, Sleepy Brown and most of the rest of the acts on this coattail-riding disc who pilfer Hayes’ stylistic touches — the wukka-wukka guitars, the breezy flutes, the swelling strings — on second-rate soul and rap tunes that don’t come within a platform shoe’s throw of recreating his badass superfly magic. They probably call it homage; Shaft would tell you that’s just a fancy word for getting ripped off by The Man. Canyadigit?
Sexe, Violence, Rap Et Flooze
No, it’s not a new exercise tape from Busta Rhymes. Flex is a totally different Busta. In fact, he doesn’t even speak the same language — as that extra letter and foreign conjunction in the album title indicate, Flex does his rhyming en francais. But heck, he’s hardly the first rapper you can’t understand. And even if you can’t make out a word of his bluster, you can still appreciate his gruff, hyperactive vocal flow, syncopated beats and sinister, slow-rolling g-rap backing tracks. Besides, some things — like, say, Fonky Sex — don’t exactly take a Berlitz course to comprehend. Sometimes, music really can be the universal language, non?
This British house duo’s debut disc Remedy lived up to its name as a well-crafted, invigorating antidote to all the boring, overblown techno on the scene last year. Think of this followup compilation as a booster shot. This 11-track set collects the usual B-sides, leftovers and remixes of Remedy tracks such as Red Alert, Jump N’ Shout and, of course, their dance-floor filler Rendez-Vu. Naturally, it isn’t as impressive as the original album — many of these tracks are padded out with the usual extended-mix thumping and bumping — but the boombastic beats, inventive samples and goofy vocals are proof the Jaxx are still wild.
GusGus Vs. T-World
Hooray, I said. A new album from GusGus, that delightfully eclectic electro-pop band/multimedia collective from Iceland. Well, not quite, said the press release. Oh, I said. Then it must be one of those remix CDs with ultra-cool DJs reworking tracks like Polyesterday and Ladyshave. It’s not that either, said the press release. Actually, these are tunes the musical members of the group — the rest are artists, filmmakers and actors — recorded in the early ’90s under the name T-World. Still, it must sound like GusGus, I said. Um, truthfully, it sounds more like Underworld, the press release said, explaining the grooves are meditative and hypnotic, with video-game synth effects, simple beats and no vocals save for the occasional ba-ba-ba from a breathy disco diva. So I stopped listening to the press release and just listened to the CD. Then I said hooray again.
A Little Bit Of Somethin’
Tommy Guerrero, we are told in the press bumpf, is some sorta pro skateboard champion. I guess we’ll all have to take their word for it — you sure can’t tell from the guitarist/bassist/one-man band’s third album A Little Bit of Somethin’. There’s no skate-punk thrash in these grooves, dude; if anything, Guerrero seems more like a lounge lizard than a half-piper. With a touch is as delicate as any session cat, he weaves hypnotic spools of fretwork into drowsy, trip-hoppy backdrops stitched together from downbeat beatboxes, his own funky basslines and the odd wigged-out synth effect. It’s magnificently soothing — in fact, almost too much so. At times, you wish he’d snap out of his reverie and bust a move. Even so, it’s easy to see Guerrero’s truly got somethin’.
Usually, Charlie Hunter has a plan. The innovative jazz guitarist’s last CD, for instance, featured just him and a drummer. Before that, he devoted a disc to recreating Bob Marley’s Natty Dread album. On his seventh solo offering, however, Hunter goes in without a game plan, and it’s like watching an all-star team without a playbook. As always, Hunter and his custom eight-string guitar are awe-inspiring; he can tosses off wicked solos while simultaneously playing bass or make his axe sound so close to an organ you’ll check the CD book for John Medeski. But the disjointed nature of these tunes — some have horns and funky percussion, some are just Chuck and a drummer, some are soulful, some swing — makes it seem as if even Hunter isn’t that interested. So neither are we. Sorry, Charlie.
New Wet Kojak
First thing you notice about this N.Y.C./D.C. foursome is how much they remind you of Girls Against Boys. No surprise there — New Wet Kojak was formed by GVSB singer-guitarist Johnny Temple and bassist Scott McCloud. But they aren’t just some half-baked moonlight gig/copycat outfit. Using the dusky sensuality of GVSB as a jumping-off point, the band takes a trip downtown, wrapping Johnny’s walkie-talkie sing-speak and druggy, beat-poet lyrics (“Note to self … the idea is central to the central idea.”) in a mantle of sparse, jazz-funk grooves punctuated by squealing no-wave sax lines. If GVSB are meaty, beaty, big and bouncy, NWK are moody, brooding, sly and groovy. Who loves ya, baby?
Some people are just born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just look at Ken Beattie, singer-songwriter of Vancouver’s Radiogram. He originally hails from Winnipeg — but one listen to his band’s debut CD and you’d swear Ken spent his formative years on a back porch somewhere in the foothills of Kentucky, learning to play gee-tar by cocking an ear to the Grand Ole Opry. The dozen country-folk tunes that make up Unbetween are unvarnished treasures of rough-hewn elegance that shotgun-wed the tragic soul of Gram Parsons to the pop-tinged craftsmanship of Old 97’s, the downbeat beauty of Red House Painters and the chamber-folk refinement of Lampchop. It’s the most moving and authentic piece of Americana you’ll hear this year — and the fact he’s Canadian just makes it all the more wonderful.
The Tonight Album
Some fans will notice two words missing from Johnny Favourite’s name these days: Swing Orchestra. Wisely, the Newfoundland vocalist has decided to jump off the swing bandwagon before it grinds to a halt. But I’m not so sure his new career path — ’60s-style pop crooner a la Harry Connick, Jr. — is such a smart move. Without the big-band bluster behind him, it’s up to Johnny to carry the show — and frankly, he just doesn’t have the pipes. Sure, when he tackles a kitshy-cool track like Georgie Fame’s ’60s Britpop bouncer Yeh Yeh, it works in an Austin Powers-kinda way. But when he sincerely tries to croon his way through, say, a jazzy version of Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It, his thin, frequently pitchy voice displays all the style, phrasing and technique of another George with the first name Boy. If he keeps this up, Johnny won’t be anybody’s Favourite for long.