Two decades ago, new albums (and even newer DVDs) from Eminem, New Pornographers, Frank Black, Clutch and others were spinning away in my players. Here’s what I had to say about them back then (with some minor editing):
On Christmas morning, millions of families will be unwrapping millions of new DVD players and heading off to the mall to pick up a few discs. Dad will probably go for something like Gladiator, so he can watch all the ultra-violence in slow-mo. Mom will probably go along with that, so she can get an eyeful of Russell Crowe’s rippling bod in even slower-mo. And the kids — well, they might want to go for something like this new video collection from rapper Eminem.
I can already hear Dad complaining: ‘Videos? Hell, you watch that MuchMusic all day long now; why should I pay for something you’ve already heard a million times?’ And we can already hear the kids respond: ‘A: For the same reason you bought The Beatles 1 CD, and B: Because these videos are different than the ones on TV!’
They’re right on both counts. While this basic nine-track set — three videos from his newest Marshall Mathers Album, four from his debut Slim Shady LP and a couple of short films — looks like nothing more than a MuchMusic spotlight segment pressed into plastic, there are small but distinct differences between these videos and the ones your kids have watched a jillion times on the tube. Granted, they might not be differences you want your kids to spot. First and foremost, there’s the language — unlike MuchMusic, there’s nobody here watching Eminem’s mouth, so every s— and f— and m—f— and f— (that’s a different f—) and c— is reproduced in crystal-clear Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. Along with all those lines about drinking vodka and killing his mother. Second, there are bits of footage that were too much for Much. Like a few scenes from his latest video Stan in which the title character (a demented Eminem fan) drives while drinking with his pregnant girlfriend locked in the trunk of a car. Of course, on the flip side of the coin, if your kids have heard either of Eminem’s albums — and even if they haven’t — they already know all those bleeped-out words. As for the censored bits of Stan, well, they aren’t even as disturbing as your average prime-time cop show. And if your kids dig Eminem (and whose don’t?), they’ll get a kick out of the DVD extras — Stan: Behind the Scenes, an eight-minute documentary on the making of the video, and The Mathers’ Home, a short parody of The Blair Witch Project starring two home-invading fans, Eminem and a chainsaw.
Final verdict: You might not want your kids watching Eminem all day, but letting them unwrap this set on Christmas might make you look cool in their eyes. Plus, after a few viewings, they’ll probably get tired of it — which will leave you more time to savour Gladiator in slo-mo.
The New Pornographers
Alt-country chanteuse Neko Case may be the most recognizable member of Vancouver newbies New Pornographers. But make no mistake: NP are not Case’s band — in fact, she really only sings on a few songs. Nor are they one of the zillion roots-rock ensembles that have sprung up on the Left Coast of late. Rather, this sextet is a sort-of Canadian indie-pop supergroup (if there can even be such a thing), consisting of current and erstwhile members of Zumpano, Limblifter, Destroyer, Evaporators and the like. Not surprisingly, Mass Romantic’s dozen cuts pack more pop than a Pepsi plant, with bouncy beats, instantly hummable melodies, jangly guitars, kooky keyboards and fun-loving songcraft that betray the obvious influence of everyone from old-schoolers like The Fab Four and The Kinks to new-wavers like Missing Persons and Sparks. Appropriately enough, it all comes together best on the title track and Letter From an Occupant, the two tracks when Neko cuts loose and lets fly with those soaring, confident pipes of hers. On these tracks, she helps take the band from unknown to unforgettable.
Frank Black & The Catholics
Dog in the Sand
Often, it seems, bands get more elaborate as they age. By the time that stripped-down punk combo you love so much put out their sixth CD, they’re recording on 128 tracks, flying in string players from Prague and taking three years to lay down a lead solo. Trust Frank Black to buck that trend. With every album the former Pixie puts out with his new band The Catholics, he strips away another layer of rock ’n’ roll fat — to the point that Dog in the Sand, his sixth solo CD, was recorded live to two-track in the studio without any overdubs, editing or splices. What you hear is what you get. And what you hear is another typically eclectic set, with Black Francis pumping out everything from choppy Stones-washed riff-rock to ’50s doo-wop to banjofied country-rock and yelping tales of guns, aliens and hermaphrodites in his unmistakable pop-punk growl. We know it’s easier said than done, but Black still makes it look easy — and that may be the most elaborate trick of all.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
In an era when most movies are just empty eye candy, you can always trust filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing) to deliver the real deal. In the case of their latest flick, O Brother, Where Art Thou? — a retelling of The Odyssey set in Depression-era America, believe it or not — that commitment to quality extends all the way to the soundtrack album. This 18-song companion CD is an hour’s worth of prime Americana in its many forms: authentic hillbilly bluegrass and mountain music by pioneers like the Stanley Brothers; reworkings of Carter Family tracks and Appalachian murder ballads by contemporary artists such as Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch; and even a prison workcrew field-holler taped by Alan Lomax back in the ’50s. From the rickety banjo of Harry McClintock’s Big Rock Candy Mountain and the joyful country of In the Jailhouse Now by the all-star Soggy Bottom Boys to Ralph Stanley’s haunted and haunting a cappella lament O Death, this stuff will send a shiver down your spine and stop you in your tracks.
The Last Meal
How ironic — dope-fiend gangsta rapper Snoop Dogg fled Death Row Records a few years back, yet there he is in a death row cell on the cover of his new CD The Last Meal. Coincidence? Who can say? All I know is that if Snoop is guilty of anything on this album, it’s impersonating George Clinton without a licence. From the knee-deep bass lines and stoner-funk grooves that drop the bomb on the one to the gospelized vocals and screwball star-child backup blathering of “Snoopy Collins,” Last Meal is a hemp-happy homage to Uncle Jam in all his Parliament-Funkadelic prime — not to mention his most satisfying disc since Doggy Style. Naturally, mentor and fellow P-Funk fanatic Dr. Dre deserves some of the credit (they didn’t coin the term G-funk to describe his sound for nothing, you know). But it’s Snoop — who elevates the disc beyond mere copycatism with his smoothly blunted raps and kicked-back flow — who remains top dog in this house. Bow-wow-wow, yippee-yo, yippee-yay, y’all.
“Hey hey now, what’s that smell? Just like cornbread done too well,” bellows big-lunged Clutch frontman Neil Fallon. To answer his question, it might be the chicken-fried scent of his fearsome foursome’s new boogie-rock opus Jam Room. Switching from the alternative post-grunge of their first four albums, these Maryland rockers dish up a 12-piece box of crispy golden goodness — part Southern metal (think harmonicas, slide guitars and Black Oak Arkansas licks), part mutant blues (think Captain Beefheart), part dinosaur-rock swagger (think Led Zeppelin) and plenty of screw-you impudence (think drum solos, songs without chorus and titles like Big Fat Pig, Gnome Enthusiast and Swamp Boot Upside Down). OK, sometimes there’s a little more jam than meat on these tracks, but this sucker is still more fun than a cockfight, midget rassling and an all-you-can-eat BBQ all rolled into one. Smells like a winner.
Slide-guitar whiz Sonny Landreth suffers from a classic case of Sidemanitis — he’s so busy playing on everybody else’s records, he doesn’t get to make many of his own. By a rough count, Landreth has guested and/or backed up more than 40 different artists (including, most famously, John Hiatt), yet Levee Town is his first new studio record in four years, and one of a scant few available outside his Louisiana stomping grounds. One spin and you’ll understand why he’s so busy; Landreth’s slide work occupies a middle ground between the dusty blues of Ry Cooder and the moaning melancholy of David Lindley, and his confidently laid-back, Knopfleresque approach goes down smooth with everything from zydeco stompers to Delta moaners and funky R&B. Granted, his thin, Jackson Browne-ish voice is nothing to write home about. But when he lets his fingers do the talking, you just can’t get enough. Get this while you can; chances are it’ll be a while before Sonny gets time to make another.
Got It Goin’ On
In 1997, L.A. bluesman James Armstrong was stabbed nearly to death by a burglar who broke into his home. Although he’s still regaining his ability to play guitar, his post-attack albums offer proof for the notion that what didn’t kill him has in many ways made him stronger. Forced to compensate for his injured fretting hand, Armstrong has slowed down his playing style, trading fiery fretted licks for soulful slidework. His vocals have followed suit, gaining new maturity and texture with each release. This third album, Got It Goin’ On, finds him moving toward Robert Cray turf, with smooth vocals and understated guitars weaving together into blues sides whose tasteful restraint and use of space add more expressiveness than a dozen blazing solos. Armstrong gives a whole new meaning to making the best of a bad situation.
I would never go so far as to say I’ve heard everything. But I sorta thought I’d heard most of it — until I came across Orphanage. This thundering sextet from Holland produces a hellish racket that I can only describe as McTallica: A fusion of (I swear I’m not making this up) Celtic and gothic death-metal. And it sounds as weird as that sounds. One minute, you’re headbanging along with a Viking drinking-song stomper voiced by guttural gargler George Oosthoek, who sounds like that guy at the Legion who smokes through his neck. Then, suddenly, the clear dulcet tones of Rosan Van Der As pipe in, lending the whole affair an eerie, Enya-meets-Exorcist air. And this doesn’t even begin to describe their hybrid of haunting Celtic melodies and graveyard-metal brooding. OK, maybe now I HAVE heard everything.
King Cobb Steelie
Mayday, huh? Well, a cry for help from these veteran Canadian underground scenesters would be understandable. After all, the marble men are now down to a trio after losing a whopping four members, and this is their fourth album on as many labels. But once you dig into these 11 muscular pop tracks, it’s obvious King Cobb Steelie don’t need a hand from anyone. Moving further away from the edgy angularity and atmospheric jams of their earlier albums, Mayday offers up a slate of smart downtown funk that’s dripping with dusty trip-hop grooves, topped with everything from hip-hop scratching and flourishes of dub to twangy slide guitars, and wrapped around sugary nuggets of sweet melodic pop. Now that’s using your marbles.
This Time It’s Personal
With their feline handle, belly-baring frontwoman and metallic sound, Toronto’s Scratching Post are bound to be written off as Kittie copycats. Which is a damn shame, since a) They were around years before Kittie clawed their way to the front of the line, and b) Truth be told, they’re a lot closer to the pop-metal of Veruca Salt than the death-slam of Voivod. U.K. native Nicole Hughes tends to purr her vocals in the same sort of sexy, breathy manner as Louise Post, occasionally spitting and hissing when the trio of faceless lads behind her crank up the groove from a chugging seether to a grinding pounder — or at least a quarter-pounder. Only closing track Militiagan, a throbbing mosh-pit mish-mash of Slayer and Sabbath, really has teeth. Other than that, Scratching Post need to sharpen their claws if they really want to make a mark.
When hip-hop mogul Percy Miller “retired” from the rap game to pursue his hoop dreams a coupla years back, he fulfilled an old show biz truism: Leave ’em wanting more. Then his B-ball career went nowhere, he came out of “retirement” less than a year later, and now he’s validating another old show biz aphorism: Quit while you’re ahead. Once the pioneer, architect and undisputed don of Dirty South gangsta rap, P continues the creative slide that began with ’98s The Last Don and last year’s Only God Can Judge Me, tossing off yet another batch of unmemorable rhymes about bee-yatches and gangstas and Scarface and soldiers and blah blah blah over top of another set of unmemorable, boom-boom-boom beats. Hell, he barely even says “Uhhhhhnnnnn!” anymore — now his signature line is, “Ya heard me?” Which is kinda like if Little Richard traded in “Whoo!” for “Yessiree!” Ghetto Postage just doesn’t deliver.
Detroit rawk is alive and well — and living in the quiet countryside of Somerset, England. Introducing Alchemysts, three U.K. yobs who have quite obviously spent years in their basement tinkering with elements of ’60s blooz-rock, from The MC5’s distorto-soul and The Stooges’ proto-punk to The Seeds’ dark majesty and even the garage-psychedelia of Count Five. In the end, what they discovered was a simple formula: Three guys + three chords + a handful of dive-bombing guitar riffs + a few hard-driving, Bo Diddley beats + some fuzz-bomber bass lines x one distortion pedal = solid sonic gold. Kick out the jams, lads.
The Atomic Bitchwax
When you have a band name as awesome as The Atomic Bitchwax, are album titles really necessary? I don’t think so. Apparently, neither do this stoner-rock trio led by Monster Magnet guitarist Ed Mundell. This sophomore release is really just a second helping of their self-titled debut, with Ed cranking out Marshall-stack blooz-metal and boogie-rock riffs while drummer Keith Ackerman and bassist Chris Kosnik do their best Blue Cheer and James Gang impersonations, flailing and buzzing and pounding and throbbing for all they’re worth. Like last time, only about half the cuts have lyrics, with the rest serving as jam-ready, fire-up-the-bong-and-rock-out instrumentals. Hey, when you can rock like these guys do, lyrics aren’t much more important than album titles.
Blues Got Soul
It sounds like the plotline to a hokey TV-movie: Days after listening to the final mixes of Blues Got Soul, L.A. singer King Ernest Baker was killed in a car crash coming home from a gig. Of course, if it were a TV-movie, it would end with legions of new fans discovering this disc of bittersweetly soulful Stax/Volt-style blues and R&B. There would be scenes of young couples grooving to Baker’s honeydripping pleas, Wilson Pickett tones and hip-swivelling tunes. You’d see trendy kids digging the guest appearances by Hepcat’s hepped-up horn section, and soul-patched hipsters nodding their heads to his gospel-toned remake of Tom Waits’ grand weeper House Where Nobody Lives. Finally, you’d see nerdy music critics typing up glowing reviews and bemoaning the death of Baker — who began his career in Chicago in the ’50s, gave it up for a sheriff’s job in the ’80s and was just beginning to enjoy his comeback at the time of his death — as another small nail in the coffin of blues. Well, none of that’s gonna happen, except maybe the last part. But at least we have Blues Got Soul, and that’s as close as you can get to a happy ending in this tragic tale.
Welcome to America
If the name Peligro rings a bell, you probably have a Dead Kennedys album in your collection. Two decades ago, D.H. Peligro — real name Darren Henley — was the drummer for the controversial punk-rock torchbearers. Since those heady days, plenty has changed: After drumming stints in Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nailbomb, Peligro took up guitar, embraced heavy metal and has now embarked on a solo career. He and his old bandmates also took singer Jello Biafra to court, successfully suing for back royalties. Good thing they won, because even after the lawyer’s fees, it’s probably more money than he’ll see from Welcome to America, his disappointing sophomore CD. Not that Peligro is doing anything wrong; it’s more like he isn’t doing anything new. Welcome to America is just another slab of black-rock funk-metal, featuring a coupla white guys hammering away in the background while D.H. tosses off basement-band guitar licks and delivers forgettable lyrics in his unremarkable voice. Bottom line: D.H. is no guitar god, Peligro is no Dead Kennedys and Welcome to America is no Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables.
As it Goes
It ain’t easy being a white boy with a taste for folk-hop. Let’s face it, as soon as people hear a lazy, loping drum machine, an acoustic guitar and a laid-back rap, they think Beck. And to be sure, there’s a fair amount of Loserish folktronica to be found in these shambling, shifting tracks from Washington, D.C., one-man band Phil Crumar. But Crumar does bring plenty of his own scratch to the table — in the form of a seriously funky backbone, thanks to his teenage obsession with D.C. go-go, along with a vocal style closer to the garrulous nerd-flow of artists like Humpty and De La Soul than Beck’s hipster-doofus mumbling. Crumar may be just starting, but he’s no Loser.
George Thorogood & the Destroyers
Even when George Thorogood was a newcomer in the mid-’70s, he was already a classic rocker, reworking the slide-guitar boogie and hoodoo choogle of bluesmen such as Elmore James and John Lee Hooker for a mass — read: white — audience. Over the years, his hits, both covers like One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer and Move It On Over and originals like Bad to the Bone and I Drink Alone have earned him a loyal following. This two-CD retrospective rewards the faithful with 30 of his most memorable tracks, including all the above, along with live performances and an unissued version of the Hound Dog Taylor smoker Christine. There are a few too many mid-period tracks for my taste, but this is still the only Thorogood album you’ll ever need to buy.
The Super Man Curse
Any CD with a song called Bong Hits and Porn is definitely gonna get some play time in my Discman (not that I’m owning up to anything, mind you). Sadly, though, that title is easily the most subversive and distinctive aspect of this fifth album from New York neo-jam outfit Ominous Seapods. Otherwise, they’re basically a combination of every other patchouli-doused, shaggy-bearded, hippie-rock ensemble — a little Dave Matthews groove, some Blues Traveler soul, a touch of Phish’s loopiness and a pinch of Widespread Panic’s southern vibe. In other words, they play fabulously and tastefully, they write expressively and creatively and they probably deliver a great time if the light show is working and your drugs kick in just at the right moment. They just aren’t doing anything a dozen other bands aren’t already doing equally well.
The category: Obscure ’80s Indie-Rock Bands. The question: Who sang Punk Rock Girl? If your final answer was The Dead Milkmen, give yourself a prize — this quirky new disc from Milkman guitarist Joe (Jack Talcum) Genaro. It sails the same seas of nerdy pop-punk cheese — read: accordions ahoy! — as tillerman Genaro cracks wise with goofy ditties about happy imbeciles, Wisconsin, autopsies and how life is much better in the movies. Sometimes his Jonathan Richman-ish voice and jangly guitar are backed by a scrappy little folk-punk combo (including former Milkman Dean (Clean) Sabatino) that recalls Violent Femmes or Modern Lovers. Other times the aptly titled Big Mess Orchestra do the honours, giving the whole affair a Lambchop-on-laughing-gas vibe. Both ways, Genaro’s winsome melodies float like a butterfly while his sardonic lyrics sting like a bee. He may be down, but don’t count him out: Genaro may make it to the Obscure ’00s Indie-Rock Bands Category yet.
The Very Best of Badfinger
The music biz has plenty of hard-luck stories, but few are as bleak at Badfinger’s. This ’70s Britpop foursome seemed to have it all — hits like No Matter What, Day After Day and Come and Get It, critically praised albums like No Dice, and the support of none other than Paul McCartney, who wrote and produced some of their songs. But despite (or perhaps due to) being signed to The Beatles’ absurdly mismanaged Apple label, by the mid-’70s Badfinger’s members were penniless. Eventually, two of them — leader Pete Ham and bassist Tom Evans — hanged themselves. Nowadays, thankfully, they’re rightly celebrated as founding fathers of power-pop on CDs like this hits set, which has 20 tracks from their half-dozen original CDs, including the gems mentioned above. If you love the sun-dappled melodies and rainy-day melancholy of bands like Big Star and The Raspberries, treat yourself to this delicious set of unforgettable tracks from one of the biggest bands that never was.