Two decades ago, new albums from Everclear, North Mississippi Allstars, k.d. lang 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):
Songs From an American Movie, Vol. One: Learning How to Smile
I blame Guns N’ Roses. After all, Axl, Slash and co. started this whole grandiose, multi-part CD trend when they put out Use Your Illusion I and II on the same day a decade ago. It took a while to catch on — for years, nobody else was goofy enough to try it. Then last year, something snapped and everybody and their posse started getting into the act. Rapper Ice Cube and new wavers XTC both borrowed part of the formula with their respective War / Peace and Apple Venus / Wasp Star sets, whose instalments were released months apart. Indie queen Juliana Hatfield flipped the script last month when she issued two completely unrelated albums — Beautiful Creature and Total System Failure — on the same day.
But the last guy I expected to see following in Axl’s snakeskin bootprints was Art Alexakis, the famously sober, level-headed and careerist singer-songwriter of Portland grunge-popsters Everclear. Just goes to show what I know. The band’s fourth full-length, the poppy Songs From an American Movie, Vol. One: Learning How to Smile — which begs the question: Is Fiona Apple titling his CDs now? — lands in stores Tuesday, with a rockier sequel due in the fall. And Songs From an American Yadda Yadda Yadda has more to in common with Use Your Illusion than a marketing scheme. Like Guns N’ Roses’ bloated albatross of an album, this cinematic, richly textured disc is the band’s most ambitious work by a mile — a record that marks a quantum leap in Alexakis’s expertise and self-assurance as a songwriter and producer. As its mouthful of a title suggests, it’s an album that may leave some thinking they bit off more than they can chew. And ultimately, like Illusion, American Movie is a record its creators are going to be hard-pressed to follow.
On his breakthrough hit Santa Monica from 1995’s Sparkle and Fade, Alexakis capably demonstrated his strength at taking intimate stories and emotions and blowing them up inside arena-size grunge riffs. On their last disc So Much For the Afterglow, he pulled back a bit, emphasizing elaborate arrangements, instrumentation and production. Here, he tries to combine those approaches — and take them both to a higher level. And amazingly, for the most part he pulls it off. Pretty much every one of these dozen heartfelt tracks is a chapter in a romance novel, from infatuation (Brown Eyed Girl — yes, that Brown Eyed Girl) to commitment (Learning How to Smile) to bliss (Honeymoon Song) to disillusionment (Now That It’s Over) to picking up the pieces and (you guessed it) learning how to smile again (Unemployed Boyfriend). Each is also its own mini-movie, complete with dialogue, sound effects, swelling strings, stirring orchestrations and production up the wazoo. And on top of all that, pretty much every one has a killer chorus, and more than a few rock every bit as passionately and powerfully as Santa Monica. Some even do it in ways Everclear has never rocked before. Here We Go Again and AM Radio both bop to looped hip-hop beats, folky-funky guitars and soulful samples. Brown Eyed Girl recasts Van Morrison’s classic in a subtle mix of dance-floor pop and Celtic rock. Learning to Smile’s loping jangle is anchored by a bass riff reminiscent of Lou Reed’s Street Hassle. Now That It’s Over slices and dices a Led Zeppelin stomp in with a wall of grand, Beatlesque orch-pop. All that’s missing is gangster rap.
Of course, all Art’s ambition may be too much for some. Admittedly, some of these songs sound overproduced, with the strings, effects and what-not added simply because he could rather than because the song calls for them. Folks who loved their older, heavier hits won’t find much of that snarl and grind here. And frankly, I can’t imagine how they’re going to play most of this live without an orchestra and a choir in tow. Interestingly enough, those are the same things critics said when Use Your Illusion came out. Now we just have to wait and see if Everclear fares better than GN’R did. At least I know I don’t have to wait 10 years for the followup.
North Mississippi Allstars
Shake Hands With Shorty
Some white boys can truly play the blues (like, say, Jon Spencer) and some just pretend they can (you know it’s true, Jonny Lang). Then there’s Luther and Cody Dickinson, the guitarist and drummer siblings of the perfectly gawddamn superb North Mississippi Allstars. Sons of Memphis music legend Jim Dickinson, these lads grew up with the music of R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Mississippi Fred McDowell in their top 40. Along with a bass player, the boys pay tribute to these artists and a few others on their gritty, grooving and seriously great debut disc, which is the freshest — and quite possibly the best — blues CD of the year. Marrying the hypnotic, circular riffs and rhythms of their heroes to the skilled musicianship of Little Feat, the blues-rock choogle of Cream or ZZ Top, and the jam-band aesthetic of the Allmans, these boys put a new coat of paint on the juke joint without turning it into a McDonald’s franchise. They could play anything they want; just be glad they picked the blues.
Canadian country-pop queen k.d. lang left Vancouver for Southern California a while back. Obviously, the sand, surf and sunny climes of Cali have had a major impact on the transplanted Albertan. Exhibit No. 1: Her new disc Invincible Summer, a collection of bright ’n’ breezy romantic pop odes inspired in equal measures by the smooth, lightly sensual grooves of tropicalia (Summerfling) and the dreamy ’60s jangle-pop of The Mamas and the Papas (The Consequences of Falling). Actually, inspired may be the wrong word; none of these mellow, melodic offerings has the spark of her torchier, twangier work — or even of her poppier hits like Constant Craving. In summer music terms, Invincible Summer won’t make it at the beach, but it’s perfect for a warm night on the patio with a bottle of wine.
Faith and Courage
“I know that I have done many things to give you reason not to listen to me,” sings Sinead O’Connor on Faith and Courage. Well, she sure smacked that nail on the noggin. With her haunting, angelic pipes, O’Connor is one of pop’s most distinctive and spellbinding artists. But all too often her publicity-sucking antics overshadow that talent. If you can ignore her latest PR shenanigans — or do you think it’s a coincidence the single mother and recently ordained priest just came out as a lesbian? — you’ll find this is her least irritating, most listenable discs in years. As she embraces styles from dubby reggae to Eurythmics-style synth-soul (credit producer Dave Stewart) and even punky pop, Sinéad lets the soaring beauty of her voice take the spotlight, even on self-indulgent numbers like No Man’s Woman (a nod to celibacy) or Daddy I’m Fine (an oddly sensual song to her father). As the quote above suggests, O’Connor may finally be learning when to open her mouth and when to shut it. Which is reason enough to listen to her again.
Jimmy Page & The Black Crowes
Live at the Greek
The Black Crowes
Greatest Hits 1990-1999
If Live at the Greek seems familiar, no wonder. Three months ago, it was issued “exclusively” on the Web. So much for exclusivity. On this retail version, the songs remain the same, although there are photos, live videos and one new track to tempt completists. Still, you can’t deny this two-CD set of Jimmy Page and The Black Crowes recreating Led Zeppelin hits like Celebration Day and Heartbreaker next to blues classics like Shake Yer Money Maker is a lit firecracker of an disc. Lord Jim plays better than he has in years, if not decades, and the Crowes reverently reproduce Led Zep’s trademark licks while imbuing their swaggering metal with a funky southern groove. Sure, they sound like a Zep cover band, but damned if they aren’t the best Zep cover band you’ll ever hear. Meanwhile, since the Crowes are spending so much time playing Zep’s catalogue, you can’t blame singer Chris Robinson and his guitarist sibling Rich for putting out Greatest Hits 1990-1999 to remind us they’ve had a few singles of their own over the years. The good news: All their best tracks are here, from early sides like Jealous Again to later raveups like Go Faster (off last year’s comeback By Your Side). The bad news: If you already have their albums, there’s nothing for you here — no B-sides, live tracks or outtakes. Of course, if you buy the disc’s subtitle — A Tribute to a Work in Progress — there’s plenty of time for that.
It’s as inevitable as death or taxes, and usually as enjoyable: Every time a rapper hits it big, we have to suffer though solo albums from every untalented member of his crew or posse or squad or whatever he calls his entourage. Colour me amazed, then, by this debut joint from Kid Rock DJ Uncle Kracker. Given his handle and day job, I figured Matt Shafer for another white-trash rap-metal mug like his boss. Instead, he comes off like a rock-rap version of Dr. Hook, treating us to 10 tracks of laid-back home-style hip-hop that feature him crooning breezy, nostalgic odes to Better Days in his Detroit hometown over soulful, country-tinged tracks capably played by Rock’s backing band. The K-Man ain’t much of a rapper and he can’t sing too well, but these greasy grooves and catchy choruses will have you saying Uncle in no time.
God Don’t Like It
Never mind that bogus Supremes reunion. If you really wanna hear some revamped ’60s-style girl-group magic, bend a lobe toward this sixth solo submission from singer Holly Golightly. Although it isn’t Motown-style sweetness and harmony that this former member of garage-gal outfit Thee Headcoatees is after; rather, her sound is closer to the tough-chick ’tude and reverb-soaked pop sound of classic distaff combos such as The Shangri-Las or Ronettes. That is, when Holly isn’t wandering around in the trailer park, lazily crooning trashy countrybilly ballads in a voice that switches between the world-weary snot of a modern-day punkette and the fiery sass of Wanda Jackson. God may not dig it, but I figure the devil is grooving to it right now.
Shades of …
The Book of Taliesyn
Admit it: As soon as you read the words Deep Purple, your brain started humming — dum-dum-dummmm, dum-dum-DA-dummmm … Don’t be embarrassed. You’re not alone; for everybody except true-blue metalheads, Deep Purple begins and ends with Smoke on the Water and the album In Rock. And even some of those metalheads probably don’t know that Purple had already issued three albums by the time guitarist Richie Blackmore stumbled across that immortal guitar line. For those who do recall, or those who want to get better acquainted with the original Purple reign, that trio of discs has been reissued in these new packages, featuring superbly remastered sound (some previous versions were actually dubbed off of old LPs), bio info, reproduced cover art and the expected B-sides and outtakes. First album Shades may be the best of the bunch — although it could be called Shades of Vanilla Fudge, what with the percolating organ-fuelled boogie of tracks like Mandrake Root and Hush. Goodies include alternate takes of album cuts Help (yes, that Help) and Hey Joe, along with a version of Hush taped on Hugh Hefner’s late-’60s Playboy After Dark TV show (too bad the hilarious interview, with pipe-chomping Hef pronouncing the guys “groovy,” isn’t included). Recorded just three months later, The Book of Taliesyn, as the title suggests, is a little hippie-ish at times, thanks to keyboardist Jon Lord’s preoccupation with Mellotron-and-kettle-drum symphonic rock. Thankfully, it’s offset by the chugging Mitch Ryder groove of Kentucky Woman (yes, that Kentucky Woman). Finally, their third, self-titled album manages to bridge the gap, with enough backwards drum tracks and surreal lyrics for the headband set and enough rock for the headbanger set. Here, Blackmore finally begins to step out of the shadow of Lord’s keyboards, cutting loose with the sort of searing solos that would turn him into a guitar hero just one year and three familiar chords later. But as these three discs confirm, even before there was Smoke, Deep Purple had plenty of firepower.
Return of the Rock
Recycled Rock is more like it. Of the 15 rapcore, goth-punk and nu-metal tracks on this MTV-sponsored compilation, a full dozen — including Kid Rock’s F#@K That, Slipknot’s Spit It Out, P.O.D.’s Southtown, Kittie’s Brackish and eight more — are straight off the various bands’ recent or imminent CDs. And of the trio of new tracks, two are remixes of Korn’s Make Me Bad and Dope’s Everything Sucks. Which means you only get one new new tune, S.O.M. (Symptoms of Mercy), a typical scream-and-grind affair from Static-X. True metal fans can probably skip Return of the Rock, but for newbies or those on a limited budget, it admittedly packs plenty of bang for your bucks.
When they debuted a few years back, this gaggle of British beauties pitched their weird shtik — revamped Renaissance folk tunes and chants — to the classical crowd. Now it seems they’re setting their sights on the bigger-buck racket of rock. Enlisting the aid of Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale as producer, on this third album the gals add a few 20th-century touches to their centuries-old melodies. Veni Coronaberis, for instance, glides along on waves of ambient synths, while Omnes Gentes Plaudite (The Drinking Song) practically rocks — rocks! — thanks to a wobbly drum ’n’ bass throb. Still, even Cale’s dark brilliance isn’t enough to disguise the gals’ meagre vocal abilities. The Bæbes remain more of an oddity/commodity than a real band, but doubtless they’ll add a surreal note — not to mention a bit of sex appeal — to your local folk festival.
Monkey by Default
Unlike Canada’s homogeneous rock scene, U.S. cities each have their own sound. Seattle spawned grunge. Detroit birthed white-boy rap-metal. And Chicago gave us noise-rock, the caustic, confrontational grind-wallop of bands such as Big Black, Ministry and Jesus Lizard. Now that those gods are currently dead or dying, Chi-town boys Gooloo have risen to pick up the noise-rock torch. And they’ve set their hair on fire with it, judging by the white-hot, lung-shredding vocals on their debut Monkey by Default. Luckily, the horror-flick shrieking of songs like FireAnts, Slag and Kreese dovetails snugly with the band’s relentlessly punishing style, which is a head-on collision of Beefheart skronk, Shellac’s mathematical muscle and the Lizard’s raw-boned pummeling. Think of a less-disciplined, less-brainy version of Winnipeg’s Stagmummer and you’re in the right neighbourhood, if the wrong city.
Feel Like Jumping: Best of Studio One Women
Quick, name a female reggae singer besides Rita Marley. And no, you don’t get a lifeline. Not so easy, is it? That’s because the sad truth is that Jamaica’s prime musical export has traditionally been a male-dominated endeavour. But this top-drawer compilation finally gives some of reggae’s female pioneers from the ’60s their long-overdue due. And they have no trouble keeping up with the boys. Not Marcia Griffiths, whose title track is a slice of Supremes-style pop. Not Cecile Campbell, whose smoky sensuality seduces you on Whisper to Me. And certainly not Nona Fraser, who finds the roots-rock riddim at the heart of Cat Stevens’ The First Cut is the Deepest. They and a dozen others help bring some of reggae’s most unsung heroines out of the shadows and into the spotlight where they belong. You go, girls.
Old punks never die. And in the case of former Exploited bassist Jim Gray, they don’t fade away either. Now trying his hand on guitar and vocals, sunny Jim makes it clear he hasn’t mellowed an iota with his new punk trio Tension. That’s new as in young; when it comes to style, Tension is straight-up old-school. Their sophomore CD War Cry is a fiery scream straight from punk’s ’80s heyday. There’s no fussy production, no college-degree philosophy, no trendy beats — just plenty of piss, vinegar and punk politicism packed into 10 hate-and-destroy anthems that violently mosh along on raw guitars, rawer vocals and a bedrock of polka-punk drumming. It might not rank up there with classic Exploited, but the song title Never Trust A Hippie is almost worth the price of admission alone.
If We Keep Moving
They aren’t fooling about the complex part. For a pack of fresh-faced kids from Michigan, this emo-rock quartet sure manage to create some of the most intricate and mature material this side of Snapcase or Don Caballero. If We Keep Moving, their debut disc, lives up to its title and then some, propelled relentlessly by a precise, powerhouse drummer, turn-on-a-dime arrangements and enough blistering arpeggio melodies and guitar shredding to fill an Yngwie Malmsteen fake book. What keeps it from drifting off into math-metal turf are the vocals — although they’re keening, soaring and sometimes adolescently high, they actually serve to ground these tracks with their intense emotionalism. “I’ve found that seeing is believing,” goes one track. With these guys, hearing is believing.
Extra Long Life
The back cover says Big Sugar, most of the songs are credited to Gordie Johnson, and some of their titles are even similar to tunes from albums like Hemi-Vision. But Extra Long Life is like no Big Sugar album you’ve ever heard. Credited to somebody or something named AlKaline, this disc is a collection of Big Sugar tracks like Deliver Me and Turn Your Lights On sliced, diced and remixed into thick blunts of authentic Jamaican dub, complete with bottom-dwelling bass lines, squirty synthesizers and knob-twiddling stoner production. Were it not for the similarity of some titles — like Jonny Thompson instead of Tommy Johnson, say — you’d never know which of Johnson’s blues-rock numbers were lurking beneath these ganja grooves. Sure, at 65 minutes it maybe a bit too extra-long. And sometimes, its predictable grooves feel more like a perfect replica of dub than actual dub. Still, this is the only Big Sugar album you’re likely to mistake for Big Youth. And that makes it worth listening to right there.