SXSW Record Reviews
MARCH 15, 1999:
JEFF BECKWho Else! (Epic)
Fitting that the latest from über-guitarist Jeff Beck contains the cut "THX138,"
a fitting nod to über-filmmaker George Lucas' first film THX-1138, because
Beck's hour-long Who Else! -- like Lucas' 1970 sci-fi drama -- is futuristic
without being formulaic. In "What Mama Said," the British string slinger
quivers over a jungle beat osmotically procured from London's underground scene.
"Psycho Sam" is a loopy gait to hell and back in an ether-filled gondola,
and "Hip-Notica" is a shuffle funk, roadhouse blues soundtrack for an end-of-the-universe
outpost. Fans of straight ahead blues-rock, a tradition Beck helped define, will
savor the sole live track "Brush With the Blues," a cut which clearly proves
Slowhand was not necessarily the best Yardbird. Beck coaxes nuance above nuance from
his amplified stringbox producing high-octane John Lee Hooker without Van Halen histrionics.
The 11 tracks on Who Else!, particularly the inscribed groove of "Blast
From the East," exude the unbridled playing of Beck's 1976 masterwork Wired
more than the jazzy jams of the subsequent Blow by Blow. Not every tune rocks
your woofers though; "Declan" radiates mournful Celtic moods without new
age sappiness. Same with the out-of-body fingerpicking closer "Another Place,"
dedicated to the late great British heavy-duty drummer Cozy Powell. Beck's position
in the rock pantheon was already established, but Who Else! cements it.
WACO BROTHERSWacoworld (Bloodshot)
At the end of Westworld, Michael Crichton's
1973 film about a futuristic cowboy theme park in which robot gunslinger Yul Brynner
short circuits and starts plugging real people with real bullets, there's only relentless
pursuit. Brynner just keeps coming. With four albums in four years, Chicago's Waco
Brothers appear to be as indefatigable, and if their latest effort Wacoworld
isn't as murderously good as either of the group's first two Clash-meets-Cash albums,
it's not lying face down in the street, either. Having lost some of that crisp English
edge to their songs -- and maybe even a little firepower -- the Wacos, led by the notorious
Oliver Reed doppelganger Jonboy Langford, have nevertheless gotten the action on
their .45s so fine and smooth that every hail of bullets naturally has its share
of bullseyes. Langford's rude opener, "Pigsville," bullseye. The last verse
of "Red Brick Wall" ("on the day of his death, I built JFK a shrine.
I know just how he felt -- I get murdered in Texas everytime"), in the shoulder.
The swagger of "The Hand That Throws That Bottle Down," straight between
the eyes. Gang leader Langford still has the truest aim, "Day of the Dead"
a hit, but sidekick Deano gets his shots in, particularly on Wacoworld's best
cut, the mournfully atmospheric "Broken Down Row." A few tunes end up lodged
harmlessly in the bar, but hit or miss, the Waco Brothers just keep coming.
BOCEPHUS KINGA Small Good Thing (New West)
Nineteen ninety-nine not weird enough for you yet? How about a guy from Vancouver
named after Hank Jr. who looks like Justin from N'Sync and sounds like Tom Waits?
Meet Bocephus King. That's King, not Keen, though you'd certainly be forgiven if
he reminded you of Robert Earl. Apparently, this alt.country thing has crossed the
border, though the sound is really just Springsteen. Despite the fact that he almost
has it stolen out from under him by fiddler Jesse Zubot, King's A Small Good Thing
is a most enjoyable album, rolling Son Volt down by the Jersey Shore with a vanful
of Doug Kershaw tapes; if you close your eyes real hard on "Heart Like Yours,"
you can almost see Steve Earle's tattoos. Actually, if King could decide between
the raucous rockers and tortured torch songs, he'd probably be a lot better off.
There's almost too much happening on this album to really appreciate it like it deserves,
but either way, Austin City Limits would love it.
THE BOTTLE ROCKETSLeftovers (Doolittle)
Remove the disc from the jewel box tray and you'll
see a photo of the gnawed, gnarled remnants of a pizza sitting on its grease-stained
cardboard circle. Fortunately the contents of this CD are quite a bit more palatable
than said forlorn dinner jetsam. The recording sessions for the boys from Festus'
major-label debut on Atlantic, last year's 24 Hours a Day, left quite a bit
of extra material (hence the title), part of which was pulled together for their
inaugural release on Austin indie Doolittle. Retaining their usual lyrical wit ("looks
like the Gulf of Mexico down by the Texaco") the Bottle Rockets venture a bit
further afield stylistically, "Skip's Song" being a melancholy acoustic
dirge with a Hammond organ droning in the background; "Dinner Train to Dutchtown,"
on the other hand, is a smooth bluesy shuffle. "If Walls Could Talk" is
a countrypolitan number worthy of Ray Price, while "Coffee Monkey" is a
caffeine-fueled paean to a cuppa joe -- the 180-degree opposite of the leaden drag
of "Financing His Romance." Culls and remnants from studio sessions often
sound like exactly that, but this nine-song effort should whet the appetites of Rockets
fans waiting for their next full-length release this summer.
ANA EGGEMile Marker (Grace)
Culled from recent tours across the U.S.A., Mile
Marker couldn't be more appropriately named. This 12-song longplayer is the first
from Egge's Grace Records, documenting the incredibly true adventures of Austin's
22-year-old singing songwriting avatar. For those not already familiar, Egge's story
is pure fairytale -- a contrast to the down-to-earth local singer-songwriter, who
has handled stints with fine mentor-types like Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Shawn Colvin,
and Iris Dement with the greatest of ease and twice the poise of most anybody else
confronted with attention and admiration. Her 1997 debut, River Under the Road,
was a jaw-dropping stunner, especially considering her age at the time (19). Mile
Marker follows suit. Her voice has ripened, almost deepened in its honey tones
and velvet warmth, while the songs have been stripped down to basics -- just Egge
and her guitar. Loyalist faves like "Fierro" and "Bless Me Mother"
seem especially kissed with love, and as for how poignant and earnest Egge's music
can be, there's still room for playful, charming kid Ana, as evidenced on "Empty
Hands" where even after fumbling the lyrics, she saves like a seasoned Las Vegan.
While Mile Marker is as fine as an album can be, for Egge, it's just another
point on the path, another stop on the road. We can't wait to see where it winds
STEPHEN BRUTONNothing but the Truth (New West)
As lazy and jaded as veteran musicians often allow themselves to become, there
are certain albums so overtly ambitious, efficient, and potent that they can only
be delivered by veterans. They're the "career" albums, and Stephen Bruton
has just delivered one of his. More often then not, these types of albums come down
to confidence, and Bruton lays it on thick for Nothing but the Truth. From
the use of a young band (anchored by Brannen Temple and Yoggie Mossgrove) to the
album's spoken word passages and six-minute spacefunk jams, Bruton's taken some boldly
non-commercial and non-traditional steps that in less experienced hands could have
easily backfired. And yet on track after track, Bruton sounds like someone who knows
he's too accomplished of an observationalist and guitarist to let the songs drown
in dullness, but also too smart to bury great tunes with complicated arrangements
or slick production. Thus, it's Bruton and producer Stephen Barber's instincts for
finding that middle ground that makes Nothing but the Truth so striking and
immediately likable. In fact, they've struck such a consistent balance from such
diverse material that there's neither a dull track nor an obvious centerpiece -- perhaps
the best proof that Bruton the performer has finally caught up with Bruton the songwriter.
For a veteran songwriter who's so often proved himself capable of genuine emotion,
wisdom, and adventure, what more could you ask?
TIN HAT TRIOMemory Is an Elephant (Angel)
Beware Classical Musicians Bearing Crossover Ambitions. And then listen to this
album anyway. If you dig Bill Frisell's Nashville and Astor Piazzola's nuevo
tango (or, more obscurely, Buell Neidlinger's jazz-bluegrass synthesis and Ivo Perelman)
this Juilliard- and Peabody-trained San Francisco chamber trio's debut will scratch
your itch with a well-strung bow. The slightly too-cutesy titles, "Waltz of
the Skyscraper" and "Thinuette," hint at the fact that you're deep
in NPR territory, but the group's downtown credentials, including stints with John
Zorn, Eugene Chadbourne, and the Knitting Factory, make sure the harmonies are sufficiently
sour, and the timbres austere enough, to fend off -- or at least challenge -- the midcult
masses (who are busy taking notes at a Wynton Marsalis lecture anyway). And yes,
the instrumentation -- accordion, violin, mandolin -- walks the fine line between tastefulness
and iconoclasm so carefully that the band at Hope and Michael Steadman's wedding
would have turned green with envy. But hell, early Sunday mornings I've been feeling
a little thirtysomething myself lately, so who am I to snigger? Especially when I'm
so busy humming along with those sour harmonies.
THE KISS OFFSGoodbye Private Life (Peek-a-Boo)
Right off the bat, or rather right after the fiendish opener "Dream Date,"
Goodbye Private Life scores with "Never Been Kissed," the sharpest
ode to sexual frustration since "Add It Up." Phillip Niemeyer breaks it
down: "I'm 23 and I've never been kissed/Be 35 and I'll never be touched/Be
45 and I'll never be fucked." Be that as it may, before the Kiss Offs close
things out with "The Horrible, Shocking Truth," a ? & the Mysterians-guided
peepshow of kissing booths, kidney thieves, and leather-lovin' eighth-grade teachers,
the Austin fivepiece have gotten a whole album's worth of rocks off. Niemeyer and
Katey Jones' trade-off vocals have all the sexual tension of East Coast neo-soulsters
The Make Up or Delta 72 (Jones has those groovy Farfisa lines on lock), but instead
of aloofly sipping Manhattans, they're getting trashed on Pearl and Cuervo shots.
These Children of the Eighties cry harder than Robert Smith on "Bottle Blonde";
the Spectorian "A Prayer to St. Anthony" conflates "And He Kissed
Me" with some good old rosary-clutchin' angst, but the consummate moment comes
when Jones tantalizes an eager voyeur on "Looking Through": "Should
I tell him to go or should I put on a show?" Ooh baby! You know what
STRETFORDLong Distance (Framed)
In the three-plus years since Stretford released
Crossing the Line, group leader Carl Normal has grown even more convincing
in his role as the reluctant romantic who can't help but shrug and chuckle at the
heartfelt foolishness of human nature. And once all the drama of a love gone wrong
dies down, is there really any better choice than looking back sardonically? Long
Distance finds the longtime Austin septet putting these contradictory emotions
to the tune of Sham 69-style punk anthems tempered by thrift store horn charts that
hearken back to the days of British music-hall entertainment. This unique musical
blend vibrates with lager-soaked empathy in a live setting, but it takes a studio
to capture Stretford's rich songwriting prowess. "How Did It Come to This?"
addresses the classic unequal relationship with wry lyrics like, "I thought
about you all day in case you'd like to know, but I'm not going to tell you because
you might laugh in my face, and you'd have every right to." Perhaps the best
song on Long Distance is "Suicide," which starts with a lonely breakneck
guitar before slowly building to a reaffirming crescendo in which Normal asserts,
"Losing love does not mean suicide." Such sentiments lend Long Distance
the air of a surrogate buddy who picks you up out of the gutter right before the
cops arrest you for public intoxication. We can all use friends like that.
MEG HENTGESBrompton's Cocktail (Robbins)
Meg is the man. On the cover of Hentges' major label debut, the former Two Nice
Girls guitarist may look a little thin, androgynous certainly -- nerdy even -- but
lift the CD out of the clear plastic tray inside, and a handsome portrait of the
singer and her bassist/partner Jude paints a more serene but steely picture -- one
borne out by the music on Brompton's Cocktail. Within seconds of the opening
blast of Breeders, it's clear there's nothing wimpy about Meg Hentges. "At every
high school in the midwest, all the queers are at the bottom -- just above the poor
and pregnant, just below the future farmers," she sings in a flat voice on "This
Kind of Love," the album's first song and single. "I could feel it, so
I left it, I had 12 years to unload." She did, too, and after a stint with Austin's
celebrated lesbian quartet and two solid indie outtings, Hentges announces her intentions
straight out of the chute: to rock -- with feeling. "Sleepwalking"
follows with good old fashioned big rock guitars overgrown with the same girlie harmonies
on buoyant blasts of pop like "Bob on the Waves" and "Silver Shine."
The first six songs are the best -- the meat of the album -- while the second half-dozen
wane a bit ("... Happy Birthday Ayn Rand"), but both "Damage"
and "Tattoo Urge," as well as the tantalizing space age waltz of closer
"Happy Go Luckiness," leave no doubt that Meg Hentges, is in fact, the
JOHN P. STROHMVestavia (Flat Earth)
John Strohm brings along an impressive musical pedigree, having previously knocked
around with the Lemonheads, Blake Babies, and Antenna, as well as sit-ins with Mike
Watt and Polara. On this, his second solo effort, he plays many of the instruments
himself, co-producing with Polara's Ed Ackerson. The result is a lavish-sounding
piece, throwing in sitar, strings, fat guitars, and even the occasional mandolin
line for a beautifully textured sum total. Strohm brings intelligent, reflective
lyrics (check Rosie Grier's visit to the high school on "Eva Braun") a
wry detachment while observing the human condition in various microcosms. "For
Awhile" and "Jesus Let Me In" call to mind Sixties pop-psychedelia
with their lush guitars and phase-shift tricks. So what's the problem here? Unfortunately,
it's a lack of hooks in the songwriting. As intelligent and well-crafted as the songs
are, as fine as the playing and production is, there's nary a chorus that you can
grab onto and take home with you. It's almost as though Strohm focused so much on
melodies and sage lyrics that he forgot to write in catchy devices, and that's exactly
what pop songwriting is about; the turn of phrase, the repetitive musical figure.
Unfortunately without that, pop songs are cut off at the knees. On the other hand,
lack of hooks means that the listener has to pay closer attention, and this CD certainly
is worthy of that.
PETE KREBS & THE GOSSAMER WINGSSweet Ona Rose (Cavity Search)
Anchored by Pete Krebs, Hazel was perhaps the best band on the Portland, Oregon
scene. Krebs' songwriting with the group ran in two directions: ready-to-wear blasts
of power pop or aching, lovelorn, bittersweet gems. On his new project's debut, with
a cast that includes ex-Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd, Krebs finds a sort of middle
ground, embellished with touches of country balladeering and piano. It's the classic
case of the Maturing Songwriter, moving away from what would generate spirited pogoing
at the Electric Lounge to what would generate reflective listening at the Cactus
Cafe. On songs such as "Thunderstorms and Alcohol" and "Take Me Away,"
there are still discernible marks of pop songwriting and an embraceable and earnest
voice, but in the transition from pop icon to folk figure, Krebs loses some of the
careful hesitancy and edginess that was so crucial to his appeal back in the day.
Fans probably saw this coming for years, and on the whole, Sweet Ona Rose
is a pleasant experience, full of solid harmonies and moments of sweet transcendence.
Yet the few nods to power pop, such as "Hey Mr. Smalltown," would be mere
transitional songs on prior Hazel albums, leading the listener into the big hook,
the blissed-out moment. This is Krebs portrayed in muted pastels rather than fiery
reds, easy on the eyes, all grown up, prepared for the sit-down set.
GRAVEL PITSilver Gorilla (Q Division)
He's glowering. Beastial, sexy, primitive. His
gaze is fixed. Frightening, really. What is the significance of this shimmering gorilla
on the cover? Perhaps fan-atics of Boston Music Awards "Best New Band"
the Gravel Pit know. Fans up there are crazy, easily incited to near-riot by the
romping ruckus that makes Boston rock. On this second full release, the Pit explodes
with the furor of Elvis Costello's first few sneering albums and brims with the pure
pop perfection of the rest. Right out the gate, it's a dizzying, genre-hopping field
trip. "I Climb (Up His Tree)" soars to Foo Fighter-land until Fleshtoney
Hammond riffs solidly dump it back into the Standells' dirty water. Following that,
"Bolt of Light" swerves and almost hits way-early Todd Rundgren in his
Nazz days. This is one bipolar monkey. The boys are joined by the Aqua Vulvas (beeee-have!):
Jen Trynin and Letters to Cleo-an Kay Hanley. They Might Be Giants' John Linnell
also guests, which makes sense since GP has the same affinity for crammingtoomanywordstogether
as those fidget rockers. Maybe the Gravel Pit are onto something. Enough naval gazing!
It's time to take rock back to the quarry! And maybe that's the point of our distant
cousin on the cover -- to remind us of the blisseral visceral animal abandon that
is rock & roll.
STARFLYER 59The Fashion Focus (Tooth and Nail)
I miss My Bloody Valentine, too, but then I miss the whole lot -- Slowdive, Swervedriver,
Lush. That guitar reverb, that loping backbeat, those breathy, androgynous vocals
(those breathy, androgynous babes!). Truth is, many of the pioneers and hangers-on
of the shoegazer movement are still touring and recording, but their moment's over,
and without the backing of a unified subculture, their charms seem as wispy and evanescent
as their critics always claimed. Three muted cheers for the Yanks, then -- All Natural
Lemon and Lime Flavors, Bethany Curve -- who've been doing their best to bring that
subculture back. And three full-throated cheers for Irvine, California's Starflyer
59, who've just put out an album as good as any produced by the original movement
(save, of course, the immortal Loveless). The Fashion Focus won't win
any awards for originality, but tunefulness and a marked talent for communicating
melancholy put the album well over the top. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Jason Martin
isn't a happy guy (randomly sampled lyric: "Sometimes we don't have a life"),
and oftimes he gets so morose you want to slap him around. But then, on "Too
Much Fun" the big guitars come out and do it for you.
ALABAMA THUNDER PUSSYRiver City Revival (Man's Ruin)
With a name that's certain to win them an oh-so-coveted
Grammy, Alabama Thunder Pussy goes for broke on River City Revival, their
second Man's Ruin album. The river city referenced is Richmond, Virginia, home to
this loud, brown liquor band (bass-guitars-drum) and site of a burgeoning punk/hard-core
scene. With seven songs in just over a half hour, the crew's heavy but lyrical riffs
are immersed in a raw V-8 production aesthetic, and the results weigh on your back
like concentrated heat; could be a massage, could be a bruise. Either way, it's a
sensation created in large part by the germane use of drop-down guitar tunings, low
keys that create brain-penetrating melody runs (the stalagmite swagger of "Spineless"),
and support raspy, guttural shout-singing (the Metallica-on-Southern Comfort of "Mosquito").
Using harmony lines instead of mere duplicity to reinforce the Soundgarden-after-standing-in-the-sun-too-long
mood of "Giving Up On Living" puts the band above other similar-sounding
volume gangs and demonstrates their greater compositional proclivities. Sure, some
of the songs sound alike, but you don't care, because River City Revival is
just frenetic and pissed off enough to be the perfect cathartic-trance-tonic for
a shitty day. And everybody has shitty days.
DIESELHEDElephant Rest Home (Bong Load)
Go to Connecticut and you can find country bands. It may be country once or twice
removed, but it still passes as country. Dieselhed is country music San Francisco-style;
a little esoteric, but still relying on country instrumentation, melodies, and song
structures. With reedy harmonies and melodies reminiscent of countless honky-tonk
influences, they stay well within the boundaries of country music. The word "esoteric,"
however, comes into play when they drag out the occasional marimbas or musical saw,
and their lyrics tend toward fairly skewed takes on the American milieu. What seems
like fairly traditional songwriting conceals a trenchant wit and offbeat observations,
with each song revealing a layer or two of texture in the mix that only comes out
on a close listen. Unfortunately, none of these songs really catch fire. Instead,
they laze along in a fairly languid sort of way. For those wanting to rock, it's
as frustrating as a Buick doing 50mph in the left lane, and for country purists,
it's too goofy and near-precious to carry much water. Ultimately, then, it's a lot
easier to picture these guys sipping $2.50-a-cup espresso in a patchouli-permeated
lair of broken-down furniture than holding down barstools, crying in their Pabsts,
and romancing big-haired honky-tonk princesses.
A Melbourne-based DJ duo with quite possibly too
much time on their hands, Chris Arkley-Smith and Scott Simon have produced a technocratic
anomaly, an almost experimental-sounding melange of breakbeats, machine-gunning looped
high hats, and burbley, spacey pings and whistles. Call it beep-rock for the new
millennium, or if you're like that cranky guy who lives above me, call it annoying,
and then call the cops on me. C'est la guerre, dude. Atmospheric without being
outright bland (Richard "Aphex Twin" James could learn a trick or two from
these two), Frontside manage to mix the requisite thudding basso profundo
with more ambient waves of sound, the end result being more or less what you'd expect
Gil Gerard's Buck Rogers to have on in the background while he's messing around with
some alien booty. Granted, some of the tracks sound a tad too much like Underworld
cast-offs, but is that such a bad thing? Judging from the (in)frequency of Underworld
tracks of late, I think not. Prog-techno, anyone?
ROB SWIFTThe Ablist (Asphodel)
A member of NYC's infamous DJ troupe, X-Ecutioners, Swift (aka Rob Aguilar)
goes solo on The Ablist in an effort to prove the art of DJing doesn't revolve
solely around scratching, fading, and party-hyping. A renaissance man, this Queens
native mixes original compositions, rather than tapping into archives of oldies funk
hits. The samples he does employ serve a narrative function, thereby, making Swift
an MC to boot. Segues between tracks allow the listener to be a fly on Swift's studio
walls as he advises and conducts collaborators like Dujeous? and Pharoahe Monch on
pitch and timing. Dujeous?, an underground instrumental hip-hop group, performs on
the album's most creative tracks, including "All That Scratching's Making Me
Rich," which employs a call and response where Swift gives them a taste of his
vinyl, and they offer an instrumental interpretation. Live musical performance continues
on "Fusion Beats," where host and keyboardist Godfried Peters gets abstract
and improvisational in the spirit of Miles and Herbie. There are filler tracks here
certainly, but rest assured; if switched to a live arena with Swift atop a much-deserved
pedestal, The Ablist should fly high and hypnotize all on hand, from poppers
to lockers, posers to true-to-the-gamers.
DIANE IZZOOne (Sugar Free)
Sometimes, when you hear an album for the first time, it strikes you with the
uncanny feeling that you've heard it before. Normally, that's a bad thing -- the music
is flat, generic. File most of today's MTV-ready alterna-pop in that category. Occasionally,
though, an artist comes along that pokes long-unused parts of your nether cortex,
firing synapses archetypal and primal. Cat Power, P.J. Harvey, and Liz Phair all
did exactly that when they came on the scene. Chicago singer-songwriter Diane Izzo,
who warrants comparison to all three, falls somewhere between these indistinct and
intriguingly intangible extremes on her debut. Some of the déjà vu triggered
by One might be attributed to producer Brad Wood, who also did the deed for
Phair's Exile in Guyville. Izzo's voice exhibits the the dry intensity of
Cat Power's Chan Marshall and the rawness of Harvey: guttural, snorting, quavering,
whispering, hollering, but with a clarity of tone and range all her own. This is
all tempered, however, by Izzo's backup boys, whose somewhat sterile pop accompaniment
devalues the 30-year-old Izzo's explosive singing. The toy piano and mandolin, emerging
in the second half-hour of the album, add interest, but these counterpoint dollops
of brightness still come off as late-model R.E.M. blandness. Fortunately, it's only
a mild dilution of Izzo's subconscious-stirring primal scream of a debut.
FIVEHEADIt's Not All Good and It's Not Right On
(Big Bucket Club)
Fivehead's preference for a lo-fi sound and the abutment of sweet and tender love
songs and brash fuck-you rockers creates a sense of sublime imbalance on this Austin
quartet's full-length debut, It's Not All Good and It's Not Right On. Schizophrenic
in the same way Sebadoh is, a likeness highlighted by how singer-guitarist John Hunt's
voice has a tendency to sound an awful lot like Jason Loewenstein's, the album builds
on the tension created between introspective fare like "The Stepleader"
and the more rolling rhythms of songs such as "Watered Down," or on the
adrenal letdown between "Kitty" and "Transcript." The contrasts
make the whole, a fact helped by two guitar tones separated from each other, and
the highly melodic nature of the bass lines which cradles them both in deep and intricate
sound. The mind-cramming choruses and clever grey-lensed observations about the world
are fed by the rough edge that scrapes the songs' spirits, exemplary of both Fivehead's
musical vision and of producer John Croslin's handiwork. Fivehead's sound distills
well. The pieces are clearer and more well-defined on this album than live, and the
energy of the songs as well as each instrumental voice, far from suffering from scrutiny,
are only more impressive on closer inspection.
FU MANCHUEatin' Dust (Man's Ruin)
Down here in Texas we like it heavy. Always have.
San Antonio is simply one of the most fist-pumping, speaker-shaking cities on the
planet, and here in the capital we've been spoiled by the likes of the Butthole Surfers,
Crust, Sangre de Toro, Honky, and El Flaco for years, continuing into the present
with newcomers like the Free Range Bastards and Godzilla Motor Company. Now that
the rest of America seems to be catching on again (Monster Magnet, Korn, Rob Zombie,
and that fake-tittied Marilyn Manson guy are about all rock & roll has going
on in '99), let's all save a bong hit or two for Fu Manchu. Eatin' Dust, their
eight-track (!!), 35-minute shotgun blast of a debut for Frank Kozik's Man's Ruin
label, blows the T-tops off your Trans Am and your girlfriend's feathered Farrah
bangs into the back seat. It also makes rock & roll safe for bass solos again.
Two or three spins around these Orange County Children of the Grave's sticky-carpeted
basement and the door is wide open for sweeping critical pronouncements along the
lines of "Eatin' Dust makes all other '99 rock albums eat dick."
See? That was almost too easy. I still miss El Flaco, though.
CHUCK E. WEISSExtremely Cool (Rykodisc)
With more and more people growing tired of the current state of music, there's
an ever-increasing number of artists looking into the future and the past. Those
in the latter group have found a trick that's increasingly passing into wide use,
namely, that if you manage to find an era to latch on to, you don't necessarily have
to have a particular style. Chuck E. Weiss, who's received praise from such blues
greats as Lightnin' Hopkins and Willie Dixon, is all over that idea -- and the map
-- with an album (his first in 18 years) that mainly hops back and forth between jumpin'
jive and gritty blues, with a dash of Louisiana flavor thrown in here, and some outright
rock & roll (remember that?) slipped in there. If that sounds like the sort of
neighborhood Tom Waits might be shuffling around in, well, look who just popped in
from next door! Waits is all over this album; singing, playing, writing, co-producing,
and even executive producing alongside Johnny Depp and others. This ain't lo-fi,
it's that pseudo-old sound that Leon Redbone popularized and Waits perfected, and
despite a bit more variety than might have been needed, Weiss manages in an authentic
and bone-rattling way to make what was old new again.
LEEANN ATHERTONLady Liberty (Steppin' Stone)
There are times when a picture is worth a thousand chords. Take the cover art
of Leeann Atherton's Lady Liberty: a Jim Franklin painting that shows the
Statue of Liberty walking slowly down a country road, her robe gathered up, and her
torch held high in a baby blue sky. It's the picture of true liberty -- the grand
dame herself has come down from her pedestal and walked on off to see what the rural
routes bring. As the second full-length from this venerable Austin act unfolds with
its coffee-cup tales of taking off and coming home, it seems the perfect metaphor,
a mood enhanced by the slow-burn blues of Atherton's delivery. There's something
of the road in that voice, an older and wiser got-no-time-for-heartaches feel; Bonnie
Raitt has her bucket in the same well. A fine interpretation, except that the album
ends on a melancholy note, with a pair of songs that drift on the edge of despair.
The title track, it turns out, is about the loss of freedom: Lady Liberty
has turned her back on her own homeland, and strides sadly off. And so it goes on
Lady Liberty, a first-rate album of two minds about the worth and cost of
MONTE WARDENA Stranger to Me Now (Asylum)
Monte Warden took only marginally less time to
follow up his 1995 album Here I Am than Lucinda Williams did with Car Wheels
On a Gravel Road, but you don't hear a lot of squawk and gossip about him being
a tyrant in the studio, do you? Nevertheless, Warden's new album is equally emotional;
a tumultuous ride through the breakup of his teenage marriage, divorce, and the redemption
that love brings. Warden's songwriting renders those classic country subjects with
a deft touch that also recalls his longtime heroes like Hank Williams and Buddy Holly.
That's Monte Warden, seventh generation Texan, who refuses to wander far from his
roots. The 11 cuts on A Stranger to Me Now are unapologetically smooth and
spit-shined to a high gloss, like a pair of dress cowboy boots. Not only does he
offer new songs such as "Your Heart Will Come Around," "It's Only
Love," and the title track, but he also revives "Just to Hear Your Voice,"
the achingly lovely ballad that won him three Austin Music Awards. "Madeline"
is Warden at his pop best, a genre for which he displays as much proficiency as country.
From the time he started playing live at age 15, Warden has displayed extraordinary
promise as a singer and songwriter that each of the five albums has met. It's been
a tall order to fill, but that indomitable Texas spirit has kept shining brighter
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