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Weekly Alibi Tiny Tunes

By Michael Henningsen

SEPTEMBER 14, 1998: 

Alibi Rating Scale:
!!!!!= Freaky, like mad.
!!!!= Freaky, like glad.
!!!= Freaky, like fad.
!!= Freaky, like sad.
!= Freaky, like bad.

USA Little Birds (Drag City)

USA's previous release, 1997's Ybissai Baby, only hinted at the minimalist aesthetic of recordings to come. Chiming, effectless guitars, plaintive vocals and songs strangely reminiscent of the twisted, off-kilter pop musings of both early Pavement and Superchunk made the six-song EP memorable, but not completely engrossing.

But while Little Birds isn't outwardly refined or distilled, it's certainly a deeper effort on all accounts. Songs like "Seven Faces" and "The Only Food We Have" are particularly schizophrenic examples of the scattered, no-nonsense approach to popcraft employed by USA. It may be easy on early, unfocused listens to jump to the conclusion that Little Birds is comprised largely of bits of sloppiness strung together into loose song structures. But frequent, in-depth listens reveal that USA use unpredictability more precisely that any band worthy of mention--even fellow Drag City bands. The record isn't so much subtle as it is simple. And simple, at least in this case, means an unabashed leftist spin on the politics of pop.

Like the monumentally ugly orange and brown sweater vest your mom forced you to wear on holidays, Little Birds is, by today's standards, as hip as they come. Evoking the sweet sadness that Bill Callahan heaps upon Smog records and the drunken optimism sprinkled about on early Guided By Voices albums, Little Birds confounds any attempts at pigeonholing. Instead, the record begs the listener to question his or her own definition of pop. And any record that inspires such introspection deserves careful consideration if not outright affection. !!!! (MH)

The Doleful Lions Motel Swim (Parasol)

The Doleful Lions' first album kicks off with one of the most perfect pop songs in recent memory, "The Sound of Cologne," a heartfelt ode to early-'70s Krautrock, namechecking Can, Neu!, Kraftwerk and others in its winsome enthusiasm. That the song could not sound less like these bands is a large part of its charm. Strong contender for Single of the Year.

Like their Chapel Hill, N.C., neighbors (Vinyl Devotion, Glory Fountain), the Doleful Lions are unafraid to take chances with established power-pop formulae. Also like these bands, the experiments on Motel Swim don't always work, but better an album that takes chances and slips a couple of times than one that plays by the rules and sounds like every other pop record out there.

Luckily, the flaws are easily remedied. Some songs echo their influences a bit too insistently (from title on down, "Advanced Japanese Candlestick Man" sounds just like Guided By Voices); about half the songs (including the quietly haunting title track) are about a minute too long, and nothing is as jawdroppingly stunning as the opener. Still, worse things can be said about an album, and Motel Swim is an extremely promising debut. !!! 1/2 (SM)

Hazeldine Orphans (All Swoll)

After last year's exceptional How Bees Fly and a well-received spot on the No Depression tour, Shawn, Tonya, Jeffrey and Anne are among the biggest rising stars in worldwide alt.country circles. So perhaps to take a bit of the edge off the anticipation for next year's major-label debut, Hazeldine (with genre godfather Walter Salas-Humara playing drums and guitar) spent two days last spring in a small Hollywood studio covering 10 songs they admire.

Orphans shows the breadth of Hazeldine's influences, from the expected (Gram Parson's oft-covered "A Song For You," the Mekons' "Wild and Blue") to the surprising. Among the folks covered: Neutral Milk Hotel, Genesis, East River Pipe and Sparklehorse, supporting my long-held conviction that Hazeldine are as much a moody, vaguely psychedelic pop band as they are a country band. None of the covers outshine the originals (though the competent cover of Radiohead's irritating, pretentious "Lucky" is the first time I've ever been able to listen to the song without cringing), but neither are they embarrassments. Orphans isn't overwhelmingly creatively significant, but then, it sounds like it wasn't meant to be. It's fun, and it's a sweet tip of the hat to their influences. !!! 1/2 (SM)

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