MAY 11, 1998:
This Is Hardcore (Island)
Pulp's Jacko-bothering Jarvis Cocker has consistently grown as a writer over the
10-album career of his band, from a semi-New Wave crooner to something damn near
an adult observer of social and personal space. If Cocker hasn't killed lounge dead
in the album's opening line, "This is our 'Music From a Bachelor's Den'/ the
sound of loneliness turned up to 10/a horror soundtrack from a stagnant waterbed...,"
then a million vintage clothing stores won't do it, either. You either love or hate
Cocker's penchant for first person inclusiveness on the poignant coming-of-age story,
"Dishes," which sadly informs, "I'd like to make this water wine,
but it's impossible/I've got to get these dishes dry," but don't ignore the
pathetic cry for help. With the insane daily turnover of pop stars in Britain, it's
easy to love the sardonic efforts of Pulp when they mock celebrity causes and
the youthful Oases of our time in "Help the Aged": "One time they
were just like you/drinking, smoking cigs and sniffing glue." Salted and peppered
with the occasional light strings and horns, This Is Hardcore plays well and
cares for your soul, so the least you can do is pray for the graceful old age of
Cocker and crew.
Twistin' in the Wind (MCA)
From Larry McMurtry to John Ford, the mythologizing of the
Old West has shaped and defined as many artistic visions as it has careers. Joe Ely
has spent the 20 years since his MCA debut release bringing the high plains and vistas
of Texas and the Southwest to life, and on Lucky Number 13, Twistin' in the Wind,
he's finally penned his Lonesome Dove, filmed his Searchers. Easily
the Austin legend's best album since 1988's Dig All Night (beyond the fact
that the new "It's a Little Like Love" is a rewrite of "Settle for
Love," and "Behind the Bamboo Shade" has somehow found its way onto
both albums), Twistin' in the Wind stakes the fertile Panhandle ground between
restless rocking and delicate fingerpicking in a way not fully realized on either
of his last two releases, Love + Trust and Letter to Laredo, distilling
everything that's made Ely a favorite Texas son. It's all on the album's first cut,
"Up on the Ridge," as good a song as Ely's ever written, and certainly
a classic opener for a songwriter who's placed a lot of importance on powerful opening
sequences. Epic in its vision and sweep, the song's melodrama and sense of something
bigger ("Up on the ridge, I gotta tangle with my fate") ebbs and flows
with Lloyd Maines' steel guitar and Jesse Taylor's ornery leads, and when the two
go head to head, it's just plain scary, like a barroom knife-fight. In fact, it's
a small army of guitarists that helps define Twistin' in the Wind (Maines,
Taylor, David Grissom, Mitch Watkins, and Teye), with Best Supporting Augie Meyers
Role going to accordionist Joel Guzman. All that's left, then, are 12 terrific tunes
that Ely wrote or co-wrote, from the atmospheric title track to the Spanish-flavored
"Queen of Heaven," the loose 'n' funky "Sister Soak the Beans,"
and a trio of slow-burners, the alternately Sir Douglas saucy "I Will Lose You,"
the Western swinging "Gulf Coast Blues," and the roadhouse raucous "Nacho
Mama." In the album's press, Ely is quoted as saying, "My whole life is
kind of wrapped up in the grooves of this record." His life, his art, and his
home. And yours.
In the Gloaming (Sire)
This is Americana's Hootie & the Blowfish. On In the Gloaming's opening
track, "Pensacola," there's a few split seconds when singer John Cooke
tries to land that emotional right cross, and with his guttural inflection, ends
up doing a knockout impression of Darius Rucker. Moreover, the music is lightweight,
though the pleasantness isn't nearly as repulsive as Darius and company. There's
another possibility, though - Gloaming could also be the work of some North
Carolina Eighties college music refugees, since tracks like "Recline to Sensible"
have more in common with the Connels than with watered-down Whiskeytown. There's
even some Crazy Horse in the band; "So Sleepless You" is a "Powderfinger"
wannabe without the signature melody (or without any melody at all, for that matter).
And therein lies the biggest bummer. For all the potential readings of who Jolene
sound like, the fact is they always sound very nondescript. It's one thing for a
song to flow seamlessly into the next, it's another to do it without leaving any
distinct impression. Tracking In the Gloaming is like coming to the end of
the page and not remembering a word of what you just read. It's an easy read, but
not one worth making repeatedly.
Ten Days in November (Shanachie)
To celebrate her fifth album, Sue Foley's given her fans
a little present: Enough self-confidence in her own songwriting to record an album
of 11 originals. The influences are so recognizable that "Sue F. loves Bob D."
and "Antone's Class of '93" are practically carved into the disc, but wearing
your letter jacket when you're out of high school is no crime. If anything, it's
a badge of honor, because Foley's graduated with honors from bar blues since moving
back to Canada, having a baby, and turning 30. Ten Days in November hits the
ground running on "Highwayside" then unselfconsciously moves over into
the comfortable Dylany turf of "Baltimore Skyline." It's in this area that
Foley seems most free; that both "She Don't Belong to You" and "The
Forest" could induce a person to dance around with "Soy Bomb" on his
chest should in no way diminish their pleasure principle. Ten Days may be
a little light on the kind of blues that Foley cut her teeth on, but the rocking
punch of "Give My Love to You" contrasts nicely with the soulful "The
Waiting Game," and ballads such as "Long Way to Go" and the Stonesy
"Through the Night" ably demonstrate her keenly developed songwriting proficiency.
Her voice, once girlish and reedy, is finding a depth that better balances her muscular
guitar work, most evident on the sublime ballad "Winds of Change." Although
all four of her previous albums show her natural progression and maturation as a
musician, this latest is most akin to her third and strongest to date, Big City
Blues. And while the image of the title, Ten Days in November, might conjure
a cold, bleak time, Sue Foley's fiery offering warms the heart and soul any time
Ray of Light (Maverick/Warner Bros.)
Madonna, electronica. William Orbit, Madonna. If ever a musical movement was better suited to an artist, Our Former Lady of the Material
World never met it. After all, what better genre than "electronica" through
which to stretch the simplest of melodies into 10-minute dance remixes. Electronica
is just a euphemism for dance music anyway, right? Well, who knows throbbing club
music better than the girl whose career was borne out of New York dance clubs at
the height of Eighties neo-Roman (Reagan) hedonism? With Ray of Light, then,
Madonna's hit it big, producing far and away her best album since '89's Like a
Prayer. It might even be as good The Immaculate Collection, and behind
that stands only the best modern interpretation of the Motown sound, '86's gemstone,
True Blue. Rife with water imagery that feeds directly into studio genius
William Orbit's warm streams of bubbling beats, loops, and 21st-century sounds, Ray
of Light explores a whole different universe just under that blue surface. And
were it all just mindless dance grooves and simple melodies, which is half the point
to a Madonna album, it would be a remix album; the relentless throb of "Skin,"
the heavy-coated "Candy Perfume Girl," "Sky Fits Heaven." But
this mermaid came baring an armful of songs - good ones, really good ones: the irresistible
first single "Swim," the dance-floor smash-to-be "Ray of Light,"
the "Like a Prayer"-sounding "Nothing Really Matters." And the
beckoning trio of siren songs at the end of the disc, "Frozen," "The
Power of Good-bye," and "To Have and Not to Hold." If they don't pull
you down to the ocean floor, then you cain't swim. With Ray of Light, Madonna's
Waterworld days of the Nineties are over. Just in time, too. Top Ten, 1998.
Saturnz Return (ffrr)
The ongoing game of sonic brinksmanship between rivals (and lovers du Björk)
Tricky and Goldie heats up with this 2-CD, nearly two-and-a-half hour, 12-track salvo
from hell. Sure, Goldie and Tricky are working in separate subgenres these days (drum
'n' bass and trip hop, respectively), but if the British music press is to be believed,
mutual enmity still festers. Which might account for the overall darkness that cloaks
Saturnz Return. Goldie's breakthrough single a few years back, "Inner
City Life," was tinged with timely sorrows as well, but that was positively
Spice Pop compared with the epic post-jungle mixes this time out. Disc one, covering
a lengthy 75 minutes, has just two tracks, one of which, the ethereal, operatic "Mother,"
is a slow burn of Goldicized disharmony that takes repeated listens to come to grips
with, but it proves a complacent "hand me those headphones" stronghold
before the riot of disc two. Opening with "Temper, Temper," which sounds
for all the world like somebody's been listening to the new Aphex Twin single, the
second half of Saturnz Return (the rest of it, anyway) is breathtaking: guest
KRS-One raps like a house afire on "Digital" while the effortlessly energetic
"I'll Be There for You" may be the first junglist love song to cross the
big deep thus far. And then there's "Demonz," the CD's closer, a furious
looping of shattering crockery and dodgy beats that swirls and churns like Fabio
asphyxiating on an "I can't believe it's not buttered" crumpet. With drum
'n' bass finally taking off in the States (and locally), this may be one of the first
requisite discs of the millennium.
Star City (Matador)
Now that all pop is "program music," the term for classical compositions
with specific imagery invoked (such as Beethoven's "Pastoral" 6th Symphony),
and the use of imagination to supply individual interpretation has been taken away
by videos, an instrumental performance has the benefits of no posturing message-mongering
and plenty of vertical sonic airspace to hang your glider in. Pell Mell, saved from
the corporate clutches of DGC by Matador (size does matter, Godzuki), has returned
with another mighty morphed organ- and guitar-led transformation of something near
surf-style into music that is sui generis category-busting, bin-hovering earfuls
of fun. Packing 14 gems of concise and subtle wisdom gained through years of playing
(mostly not together) and production (Steve Fisk has worked with Afghan Whigs,
Nirvana, and Boss Hog to name a few, while Greg Freeman has made albums with Thinking
Fellers Union, Royal Trux, Barbara Manning, and others), the development of songs
is liberated from typical verse-chorus-verse construction and achieved through details
and textures that emerge, then disappear, leaving you grasping at beauty, then washed
over by the next episode. With so many songs and too little space for detail, this
is an album of extraordinary intelligence and grace that should teach instrumentalists
the importance of what you don't play, and vocalists to learn an instrument.
Ocean Songs (Touch & Go)
For a band like Melbourne, Australia's Dirty Three, the title
Ocean Songs is a bit of a misnomer. The 10 songs here aren't clean-cut, hook-laden
passages with a beginning and an end. Dirty Three's vast instrumental passages are
more aimed at communicating a mood or atmosphere than a concrete idea. In doing so,
the trio exudes a vaguely metaphysical power that's somehow impossible to ignore.
Violinist and occasional Nick Cave sideman Warren Ellis plays with a delicate and
forlorn passion that revels in ambiguity, which allows the listener to sink into
the music in an intimate manner that traditional song lyrics effectively forbid.
The 16-minute marathon of "Deep Waters" starts out sweet and distant before
falling into a repetitious spiral driven by Mick Turner's guitar and Jim White's
perfectly accented drum fills. Ocean Songs sort of sneaks up on you like one
of life's great conversations, and Steve Albini's brisk, organic production is well-suited
to the task. You wouldn't necessarily listen to this album all the time, but when
you did, you'd listen pretty hard.
A Go Go (Verve)
Somewhere along the way, John Scofield decided his brain hurt. Over 20 years of
discipline, practice, and devotion to making music for the head and heart are enough;
now he wants to forget all he's learned and play instinctually - find a backbeat,
a groove, and let's be honest, an audience. So he called Medeski, Martin, and Wood.
On paper it seems the perfect plan; the organ/bass/drums trio, prime progenitors
of funk jazz, and the veteran of modernist guitar. Their law firm name notwithstanding,
Medeski and band pack rock clubs across the nation with jazz hippies, dancing, you
know, that dance, while the band riffs tirelessly. Add an inventive player
like Scofield to the mix, subtract his overwrought fusion, and it can't miss. And,
from the slinky opening notes of A Go Go, it clicks; nourishing, fat grooves
feed a light New Orleans-flavored funk/swing. The songs continue in various soul/jazz/funk
veins, cutting deep to show off Scofield and Medeski's chops in a smart and gritty
fashion. This is undeniably catchy music. So much so that at first you don't notice
the rhythm section's rather leaden performance. A few plays later, you do. Drummer
Billy Martin works it just fine in the context of his own group, but here, with tricky
just-behind-the-beat rhythms and a tougher level of play, he flounders on occasion,
and sounds as though anchors are tied to his wrists. It doesn't matter that much.
It could have been better, sure, but given the point of this groove-fest, it's pointless
to overanalyze; Scofield provides plenty of moments here to admire. You'll nod your
head, tap your foot, lean back, and fall right in. Let it happen.
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