Two decades ago, new albums from Juliana Hatfield, Sleater-Kinney, Modest Mouse 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):
Juliana’s Pony: Total System Failure
Juliana Hatfield has always seemed a little bipolar. If you have her albums, you might know what I mean. Half the time she comes on like gangbusters, cranking the amp to 11 and rocking out like the grunge-pop goddess she almost became back in the mid-’90s. The other half, she’s obsessing over why her last guy dumped her and measuring her self-worth by the status of her love life. And over the roller-coaster ride of her career these past few years, as she’s gone from indie-rock cult figure to major-label It Girl and back, it’s been hard to know which Juliana is going to show up on CD — and whether you’re going to want to ask her out, give her a big hug or just slap some sense into her.
Thankfully, Hatfield’s decided to help everyone out a little. Rather than trying to stuff the opposite sides of her split personality onto another single CD, she has given them both equal time and space on separate albums, both of which were released on the same day. If it’s the hard-rocking Hatfield you prefer, go straight for Total System Failure, recorded under the band name Juliana’s Pony, a trio featuring former Weezer bassist Mike Welch and drummer Zephan Courtney. It’s Hatfield’s heaviest, punkiest outing in years, with the band bashing and thrashing through a dozen distorted garage-pop jams while former Berklee vocal student Juliana uses her seductive purr and bittersweet harmonies to play rock-star goddess, ordering her imaginary servants around (Houseboy), flipping the bird to Sunday drivers (Road Wrath) and mocking her boyfriend’s fashion sense (Leather Pants).
If, on the other hand, you want some quiet time with Juliana’s sensitive alter-ego, Beautiful Creature is for you. It’s a set of perfectly classic Hatfield girly pop, with Juliana swooning and crooning over a new guy (Cool Rock Boy) or feeling wounded over an old one who dumped her rather than clean up his act (Choose Drugs). Fittingly for such a personal disc, Beautiful Creature has bedroom-fi instrumentation and production, with drum machines, sparse accompaniment and several songs played solo. “I live on sugar and honey,” she volunteers at one point, explaining, “This is the sound of no money.” If Beautiful Creature is the product of poverty, I wish her continued failure.
Of course, I don’t really mean that. In fact, even though you can buy these albums separately, I suggest you shell out for the imported box set, which contains both discs along with a third, enhanced CD with photos, Web stuff, a Juliana screensaver and an extra track that’s the real bonus: A simmering, crunchy cover of The Police’s Every Breath You Take that balances both sides of Hatfield just perfectly. Even if you can’t find the box, double your pleasure (and your sweet pain) and get both CDs. Then, even if your moods swing faster than Hatfield’s, you’ll have the soundtrack to match.
All Hands On The Bad One
“You can’t get to heaven with a three-chord song,” claim Sleater-Kinney on the title track of their new CD. Maybe not — but this Olympia riot-grrrl group come pretty damn close on their fiery and fantastic fifth album. Returning to the surging, sugary punk-pop of their 1997 breakthrough Dig Me Out in the wake of the cerebral introspection of last year’s The Hot Rock, singer/guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss cut loose here with 13 solid, hook-laden tracks that reflect their growing confidence and skills as vocalists, musicians and composers. From the slashing guitars, crackling melodies and warble-free Bangle-pop harmonies that drive these songs, to the assertive scene-skewering lyrics that animate tracks like You’re No Rock ‘N’ Roll Fun and Ballad of a Ladyman, All Hands on the Bad One is the trio’s most confident and competent album thus far. If this is a bad one, a good one will be nothing short of heaven-sent. Get your hands on this ASAP.
The Moon & Antarctica
The press bio jokingly claims these songs are the work of a deranged fan obsessed with this offbeat indie-rock trio. Truth is, this beloved Seattle outfit don’t need a stalker to create their wonderfully warped material — they’ve always done just fine on their own. And do so again on The Moon and Antarctica, their awe-inspiring fifth album and major-label debut. One of the most ambitious and compelling discs of the year, The Moon and Antarctica is a cinematic, richly textured sequence of songs whose sonic and stylistic landscapes are as otherworldly and imposingly beautiful as its titular ones. Driven by singer/guitarist Isaac Brock’s neurotic yelp and jagged, eccentric guitar work, tunes like Dark Center of the Universe, Life Like Weeds and album centrepiece The Stars are Projectors are almost proggishly European in their dreamy, epic length and knob-twiddling experimentation, while retaining a Pavement-like grit and immediacy in their delivery. You may have to hunt for this one — it’s an import — but like all major discoveries, it’s worth the search.
The Sophtware Slump
Think of it as Not-So-OK Computer. This Modesto, Calif., space-pop quintet’s wittily titled second album is also fittingly titled. The Sophtware Slump’s 11 electronic excursions are superb, bittersweet tales of technological tragedy — from lost pilots and malfunctioning programs to obsolete appliances and a drunken, suicidal robot named Jed. But if you picture a soulless techno backdrop for these mournful mechanical missives, reboot your hard drive. Singer-keyboardist Jason Lytle’s country-tinged harmonies, gritty production, buzzing rock guitars and sweetly earnest melodies provide the perfect human counterpoint to the technological dystopia of its lyrics. Sophtware Slump is like a love song composed by an android with artificial intelligence — and a broken heart.
Alone With Everybody
On the album cover, he could almost pass for Mick Jagger circa Performance. Keyboardist Chuck Leavell plays on several tracks. And his old band’s biggest hit, Bitter Sweet Symphony, was built on an orchestral recording of The Last Time. Clearly, Richard Ashcroft has a bit of a Stones fixation. Oddly, though, the former Verve vocalist’s solo debut Alone With Everybody is anything but a rolling clone. Instead of playing arena-rocker, on this slate of mellow, richly produced numbers, the magnetic, shamanic singer recalls a roster of earnest troubadours: Van Morrison (on the pastoral pop of I Get My Beat), Bob Dylan (on the folky ballad Brave New World) and — believe it or not — Neil Diamond (on the dark jangle of C’mon People). Mostly, though, on these tracks Ashcroft still has a thing for strings and symphonics. You know how bands often have a big, lush guitar ballad as the last song on their album? This is pretty much a whole album of them. Which makes it seem pretty ambitious at times — and pretty endless at others.
L.A. hip-hop crew Jurassic 5’s handle sounds like the name of a gang of cartoon dinosaur superheroes, doesn’t it? Well, maybe that’s not so far off — in these days of rap-metal, this sextet’s sound and style are so old-school they’re practically prehistoric. And these guys have definitely come to save the day. Forget the detuned guitars and gratuitous violence that are all the rage; on this stylish, well-crafted debut, the J5 (featuring Ozomatli rapper Chali 2na and DJ Cut Chemist) prefer to dwell back in the day when rhymes were fresh and positive, vocals were gymnastically graceful, and grooves came from old jazz and soul LPs cut together on the wheels of steel. If you appreciate De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest or Pharcyde, flowing and full-bodied tracks like Swing Set and Monkey Bars just might make Jurassic 5 your new hip-hop heroes.
For those who find Cypress Hill tracks like Hits From the Bong and I Wanna Get High too sophisticated and subtle, there’s always Kottonmouth Kings, a hemp-happy hip-hop crew from Cali. From the git-go, their third CD High Society — not to be confused with their first, Royal Highness — is an encomium to the glory of ganja, driven by the usual blunted beats, boombastic bass, smoking grooves and pro-pot poetry. To their credit, though, even at their most stereotypically hydrophonic, the Kings keep it on a mellow hip-hop tip instead of resorting to cliche rap-metal bludgeon and bluster. That makes it a smoother, more satisfying joint than the last Cypress Hill CD — but even though some of High Society is a trip, it’s one you’ve already taken.
It’s been nearly a decade since KISS drummer Eric Carr died of cancer, yet he hasn’t been forgotten by the kabuki-faced group’s fanatical followers. Last year, an EP of music and a video documentary of Carr — born Paul Caravello — were released. Now, just weeks before what would have been his 50th birthday, here comes the mother lode: An entire CD of songs, demos and work tapes compiled and completed by his collaborator and pal, ex-KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick. Although none of the other band members appears here, KISS’s stamp is all over these 12 tracks of ’80s hair-metal, some of which are as good as anything the band put out back then. Heck, half the time Carr’s surprisingly strong voice sounds like a more subdued Gene Simmons. If there’s one drawback, it’s that many of these tunes are unfinished, poor-quality cassette demos with only gibberish guide vocals. But even if it’s not how Carr intended to release it, Rockology will still be an essential piece of KISStory for fans.
Ghost in the Ruins
This operatic Florida metal outfit was formed in the early ’80s by singer Jon Oliva and his guitarist brother Criss. Now there’s just Jon. Not because of some sort of Gallagher-style sibling feud; Criss was killed in an car crash in ’93. Since then, naturally, the band has struggled — after all, it’s one thing to replace an exceptional guitarist; it’s quite another to replace a brother. But Savatage do their best to honour Criss’s memory and move toward closure with this collection of live tracks recorded between ’87 and ’90. Frankly, much of it is standard metal — between the pumping double-bass drumming, pompy arrangements and Jon’s tight-trousered shrieking, Savatage sit between early Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. It’s Criss’s pyrotechnic playing that sets them apart and adds poignancy to these tracks. We’ll never know how great he might have become, but at least we can hear how great he was.
Charlie Watts & Jim Keltner
Charlie Watts / Jim Keltner Project
Usually, stone-faced and rock-solid drummer Charlie Watts uses his time off from The Rolling Stones to indulge his passions for jazz, be it big-band ballads or blistering be-bop. But if Watts’ solo albums are normally along the lines of Birth of the Cool, this collaboration with L.A. session stickman Jim Keltner is his Bitches Brew. Eclectic and experimental, the project sees the two stickmen duetting on a series of moody, meandering percussion suites built from loops, samples and sequencers. And while each of the tracks was named after a famous drummer whose work it supposedly recalls — Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, etc. — these flowing, trancy grooves and sinewy rhythms seem inspired more by Eastern mysticism or South African percussion than Western swing. On a couple of tracks, Charlie even unleashes his trademark, in-the-pocket rock grooves, which I don’t seem to recall Roach using. if Charlie is your darling, you might groove to this. But casual Stones and jazz buffs may get no satisfaction.
‘Til We Outnumber ‘Em
For a left-wing folk singer who’s been dead more than 30 years, Woody Guthrie is making a helluva comeback. Last year, Folkways reissued a four-CD box of his songs. Just last month, Billy Bragg and Wilco released Mermaid Avenue Vol. 2, their second set of new songs written to some of his leftover lyrics. Now there’s this tribute disc, taped live during a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame event in 1996. And a star-studded event it was — everyone from Bragg (doing Against the Law, one of his collaborations) to Bruce Springsteen (who vroom-vrooms comically on Riding in My Car and croons darkly on Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) to Woody’s boy Arlo ( who reminisces about his pop and covers Dust Storm Disaster) treat the Woodman’s work with all the reverence it deserves (and all the irreverence he would have wanted). A treat.
Once I Was
Like father, like son. Both ’60s folk-rocker Tim Buckley and his boy, ’90s folk-rocker Jeff Buckley, rose to fame on the strength of their mesmerizing performances, powerful voices and intimate compositions. Both died tragically and young — Tim overdosed on heroin 25 years ago yesterday, and Jeff drowned three years ago. And currently, both have new live albums in the stores. Jeff’s is the scintillating Mystery White Boy, released last month. Once I Was is dad’s turn — eight unvarnished BBC Radio performances that encompass his wide-ranging style, which touched on gutsy blues rock (Honey Man), delicate folk (Morning Glory) and breezy acoustic country-pop (Coming Home to You). The younger Buckley’s fame hasn’t dimmed despite his death; here’s hoping this charmingly rough-hewn disc brightens his father’s fading star a bit.
Face to Face
Talk about giving the people what they want. Three months ago, this Southern California punk-pop quartet uploaded 16 tracks to the Internet and let fans pick the ones they like. Here are the 12 that got the most votes. Judging by the results, it must have been a tough call — each of these dozen fast-paced powerhouses bristles and crackles with the pounding pulse, guitar grind and punk positivism that have defined much of the band’s work. Truth be told, it might be hard to tell some of these songs apart in a lineup — just as it might be tough to pick Face to Face out next to the million other O.C. OG skate-pop acts. But so what if they won’t win any prizes for originality? They’ve already got the trophy for congeniality.
Boy Sets Fire
After the Eulogy
Boy Sets Fire are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. That’s obvious from the opening moments of this Delaware outfit’s second album After the Eulogy, when singer — actually, better make that vocalist — Nathan Gray shriekingly demands, “Where’s your anger? Where’s your f–ing rage?” from atop a wall of muscular, kinetic metalcore. Don’t worry if you can’t summon up suitable fury on demand; BSF have plenty to spare on these 13 tracks, which spleen-vent on everything from downsizing (When Rhetoric Dies) to gay-bashing (Compassion as Skull Fragments on the Wall, the wickedest title I’ve heard this week). Along with talking the talk, these intellectual punks walk the walk with 45 minutes of relentless high-velocity grind and rabid intensity. Plenty of bands play hard, fast and loud because they have nothing to say. I suspect Boy Sets Fire do it to make sure you don’t miss a single syllable.
The Loud Family
The Loud Family are neither loud nor a family. Shall we discuss? Very well. This musical clan is actually the brainchild of former Game Theory and Guttermouth singer-guitarist Scott Miller, a smartypants popster whose offkilter sense of musical mischief is matched only by his keen ability to fashion a sharp hook from the most unlikely of ingredients. Tunes like 720 Times Happier Than the Unjust Man and No One’s Watching My Limo Ride sparkle and shine with all the ’70s power-pop crunch of Sloan, but combined with the English-lit grad-student wit of Fountains of Wayne and the oddball instrumentation and production of a guy who either owns his own studio or has way too much time on his hands. If only all pop albums were this much of a nuisance.