Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Tiny Tunes

By Michael Henningsen and Stewart Mason

AUGUST 17, 1998: 

Alibi Rating Scale:
!!!!!= Meaty
!!!!= Beaty
!!!= Big
!!= And
!= Bouncy

Mark Lanegan Scraps at Midnight (Sub Pop)

Arguably the loudest of the Screaming Trees, Mark Lanegan--an unsatisfied soul with a haunting baritone--one-upped himself during the four-year pause between his first two solo albums (1990's The Winding Sheet and 1994's Whisky for the Holy Ghost) and has managed to do the same with Scraps at Midnight. The record is dark, wintry and marked once again by Lanegan's uncanny ability to bleed his passions and discontent on record. His latest platter is disarmingly stunning, like late-night drives on the winding roads and hairpin turns of unfamiliar territory.

Joined once again by ex-Dinosaur Jr. bassist Mike Johnson, who co-produced, played on and assisted in the arrangement of the record, Lanegan successfully used the comfort of that association to punctuate his distinctive, yearning songs. The album's opener, "Hospital Roll Call," pits Lanegan's one-word mantra ("sixteen") against a backdrop of surf-soaked, droning guitar and country-folk flavored sadness that hints at all things to come on the remaining nine tracks. Songs like "Bell Black Ocean" and "Last One in the World" are opaque glimpses into Lanegan's longing for the mythical satisfaction of the wide open spaces of the West, while "Stay" and "Wheels" touch on the rock 'n' roll fire he has managed to set so formidably with Screaming Trees.

While Scraps is certainly wrapped in ribbons of fragility, unwelcome enlightenment and sad candor--elements that resound throughout and tie the songs gently together--the subtle diversity it offers is its most deadly weapon. Other contributors, including Paul Solger, Dana, Keni Richards, Dave Catching and Fred Drake (J. Mascis and Tad Doyle make additional guest appearances), bring blues, folk and searing rock guitar work into the fold for a record born of controlled chaos and simmered in cohesion. As a songwriter, Lanegan writes with both the beautiful, crazed abandon of Syd Barrett and the poetic, realist charm of Leonard Cohen. Scraps, of course, doesn't sound much like records by either of the aforementioned artists, but it's quite obviously not supposed to. Instead, the musical paths Lanegan dimly lights here are intended to lead the listener on journeys of their own design. Does it work? Better than you can even imagine. !!!! 1/2 (MH)

The Gothic Archies The New Despair (Merge)

Stephin Merritt is one busy man. The Boston-bred, New York-based auteur has been releasing albums for nearly a decade, originally under the name The Magnetic Fields. However, since the release of 1995's Wasps' Nests by The 6ths, Merritt's focused on a wider palette, following it up with one more Magnetic Fields record (1996's Get Lost), last year's brilliant Memories of Love by Future Bible Heroes (a collaboration with Fields drummer Claudia Gonson and Christopher Ewen, formerly of '80s synthpoppers Figures On A Beach), work on a new 6ths album and this solo EP as the Gothic Archies.

The conceptual masterpiece Wasps' Nests showed why Merritt should work in as many different musical endeavors as possible. All 15 songs were Merritt compositions, but each featured a different singer, and each sounded like a completely different band. It was probably the best album I heard that whole year. Merritt's subsequent projects have been divergent enough that, save for Merritt's voice--a doleful, dissipated baritone that's possibly the most expressive, instantly identifiable voice in '90s pop--no one could mistake one for the other.

The Gothic Archies, as the name suggests, marry the two key features of Merritt's musical career--an unabashed and un-ironic love of '60s bubble-gum music and a world view so pervasively dark that it would border on pathological if it weren't so obvious that on some levels he's kidding: Witness the album title and the sole lyric of the closing song, "We're in a cave at the end of the world/Cooking and eating our friends." Not even Trent Reznor could deliver that line with a straight face.

Musically, tracks alternate between harried cacophony ("It's Useless To Struggle") and sugary bounce ("City of the Damned," which really sounds like the Archies, provided Charles Bukowski had written their lyrics), with Merritt's dark wit and amazing voice the only constants. The lyrics are less mordantly funny than on Merritt's other albums, but his melodic strength and skilled arrangements are, as always, flawless. Despite the traditional half-cup docking given to all CDs under half an hour long, this is an exceptional record. !!!! (SM)

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