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DECEMBER 28, 1998: 

** Swedish Egil



One of several new CDs featuring the remixes of DJ Swedish Egil, Groove Radio International is 73:52 of what purports to be dance music. And so it is, if by dance music one means a continuous mix format. But even though the CD opens with the Sneaker Pimps' sleazy "6 Underground," features the Chemical Brothers' "Block Rockin' Beats," and roars through Fatboy Slim's "Everybody Needs a 303," club-dance divas will search Egil's trip-hops and drums-and-beats style in vain for the deep delicious sugar and the soft jazzy vocals that epitomize the club dazzle sound. Eventually he does elevate this set to a sweet high level, via Libra Presents Taylor's beautifully flighty "Anomaly" and Usura's even dreamier Eurohit "Open Your Mind." For a taste of treats like these, it's almost -- but not quite -- worth waiting out raspy, metaloid raves like Crystal Method's "Busy Child," the trip-hop of 2 Fat Buddas vs. Fathead's "Cut the Music," and the Freestylers' painfully noisy "Check the Skillz."

-- Michael Freedberg




Stop me if you think you've heard this one before: cute, fashionable British boys with guitars and fey accents compose precious, semi-literate, mopy, ultimately nondescript tales of swingin' London. Gene, dear chap? Bluetones, ol' boy? Geneva, guv'ner? Nope, it's Rialto, yet another faceless flavor-of-the-month. Ever since recovering Britpoppers Blur became slanted and enchanted and Oasis had a champagne implosion, the milieu of bowler hats and Union Jacks has been wide open for a new wave of synonymous understudies. Rialto is Britpop-by-the-numbers: the aching-to-be-Morrissey pun of "Milk of Amnesia," the uncomfortably dumb ripoff of Oasis's "Cigarettes and Alcohol" ("Broken Barbie Doll," which refers to "sleeping pills and alcohol"), the pseudo-Suede pomp of "The Underdog," the Divine-Comedy-meets-Morricone cinemascope of "Untouchable." If it's any indication of success, the quartet have already nabbed a couple of Top 40 hits back in Blighty. But here in the States, Rialto are only for those who find the wait between Ocean Colour Scene albums to be unendurable.

-- Patrick Bryant

*** Number One Cup



This Chicago foursome can't resist a sly wink at rock-culture detritus -- in this case an album title that cops Mick Jagger's plea to the skirmishing Hell's-Angels'-infested crowd at Altamont. With songs named "(Who Awaits) The Countdown?" and "What Does It Mean?" and lyrics that don't really answer those questions, Number One Cup are obscurantists in the vein of Pavement (but with a more pronounced fondness for electro-pop that's always been hinted at and is getting more prominent with each release). Like their excellent 1996 disc, Wrecked by Lions, Why Are We Fighting? is as stimulating in its music as it is perplexing in the lyric department. This time the band's angular yet classic-sounding riffs, their dovetailing melodies, and the glandular-by-gradation vocals of the three song-swapping lead singers are the backdrop for meditations on Canada disappearing and ice melting around batteries -- the latter of which is, and I'm guessing here, about a gin-and-tonic warming up the singer's heart.

-- Jonathan Perry

Loudon Wainwright





Wainwright's been mining his midlife crisis for the last decade or so, and these two reissues from the early '70s are proof that existential bugaboos and domestic decay have always had a place in his tunes -- often in amusing ways. Here you'll find him wryly telling his yet-to-be-born son, Rufus, that life "has a few unpleasantries," and his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Kate McGarrigle, that love's tender trap is in fact a "suicide snare." Wit has never been a problem.

Attempted Mustache was recorded in Nashville, hitching the imagination of a New York wiseacre to a country-rock sound. The scrappy grooves of the rhythm section nudge Wainwright from his folkie beginnings, shoring up the random violence of "Clockwork Chartreuse" and adding some righteous twang to the clever chastisements of "Down Drinking at the Bar." The band actually rock out on "A.M. World," the singer's poison-pen letter to the trappings of big-time pop. Of course Wainwright's also a master of the ditty, and neglected nuggets like Unrequited's "Kings and Queens" are hummable quips that compare well with John Prine's most casual wordplay. Mockery and poignancy can be captured in a phrase or two, and ultimately it's pith that defines the work: whether Wainwright is needling new-age swamis or repenting to a long-gone lover, he's almost as concise as a jingle writer.

-- Jim Macnie

*** Lambchop



Nashville's strangest traditional country band, Lambchop, just keep growing -- with this album, they're up to 14 members, plus guests including Vic Chesnutt. Ringleader Kurt Wagner's bottle-got-me-down baritone presides over a surprisingly quiet, slow, subdued clan whose output includes pedal steel, guitar lines that waft to the ground like a feather, and hints of strings, brass, and vibraphone. The disc's drama is over-the-top enough that it could be an old country-radio staple, except that most of the songs forgo hooks in favor of minutely focused orchestration -- more Belle and Sebastian than Mother Maybelle. And if you listen closely to Wagner's words, they're a lot stranger than you'd expect to find on a Southern jukebox: "Do the shabby thing, you/Separate the beef from the stew."

Lambchop seem to have found part of their calling doing subtle, richly textured covers of unlikely songs. Last year's Thriller included three songs originally done by their Merge labelmates East River Pipe. Two more appear here, along with versions of Dump's lovely "It's Not Alright" (the only rock-like moment) and, brilliantly, Curtis Mayfield's "Give Me Your Love," which gets a huge, swooping disco-strings arrangement and some awesome falsetto singing.

-- Douglas Wolk

** Jonny Lang



It's hard to stomach Lang's overwrought vocal yowl. That's the one thing that keeps turning his potentially listenable blues/pop numbers like "Still Rainin' " into painful blackface parody. (If you caught his brief vocal turn in Blues Brothers 2000 -- full of trite, horrid grimacing -- you know that all too well.) Too bad, because the young guitarist's beginning to tap his potential on this CD. His playing's marked by a big tone and the right balance of flash and subtlety. Sure, he still phrases like Stevie Ray Vaughan on most of his solos and fills, but at least he's one of the best Vaughan clones. And when he slides into a hard funk bag, as he does on "Before You Hit the Ground," his rhythm 'n' lead chug sings -- a lot better than he does on that tune. Too bad, because when he slows down to slip into ballads like "The Levee" and "Breakin' Me" -- where the howling's kept to a minimum -- he proves himself capable of drawing sweet emotional nuance from his limited voice. Hell, John Lee Hooker likes him, which counts for something.

-- Ted Drozdowski

** John Hiatt



Now that John Hiatt has been covered by Jewel and has been on a Travolta film soundtrack (both with "Have a Little Faith in Me," which leads off this set), critics are no longer allowed to gripe about his not being more famous. Unfortunately, the re-recording of "Faith" on this collection is one of the tackier things Hiatt's ever done -- overproduced and sentimentalized, it's guaranteed to make you think "I hope he doesn't stick a gospel choir on this" about 15 seconds before he does. To his credit, Hiatt's tunes usually aren't that tidy. His love songs are often built around something rough and real, whether it's the jittery rhythms in "Thing Called Love" (which rocks harder than Bonnie Raitt's cover) or the lack of a happy ending in "Feels like Rain."

This generous collection is less a "greatest hits" (since he's never really had any) than a random selection of good songs from previous albums, with a couple more remakes and new ones thrown in. But it leans strongly toward one side of Hiatt: the well-adjusted, country-pop family man. His more interesting maverick side is largely passed over -- there's only one song from his pre-sobriety Geffen albums and nothing from the underrated Little Village project or from last year's wonderfully loopy Little Head. The standouts here are "Slow Turning" and "Tennessee Plates," on which Hiatt connects with two of rock's weightiest topics: the aging process and Elvis. Both songs originally appeared on Slow Turning (the follow-up to the better-known Bring the Family), which remains the high point of Hiatt's career.

-- Brett Milano

**1/2 Depeche Mode



Depeche Mode's most successful post-mid-'80s songs ("Never Let Me Down Again," "I Feel You," "Barrel of a Gun") reinvent the eight-miles-high surge of seminal psychedelic rock as unnostalgically as early hits like "Just Can't Get Enough" synthesized the yummy-yummy bounce of classic bubblegum. The Singles 86-98 catches up with the catchiest music these old New Romantics have made since their 1985 compilation Catching Up with Depeche Mode, their only other album that non-fan-club members really need own. The melodies still try way too hard to sound dark, the dinky sound effects don't always work as kinky percussion, and David Gahan's lounge croon frequently comes off more constricted than ominous. In eternal artsy-fartsy tradition, his lyrics are rarely as deep as they pretend to be -- the more he tries to be profound about faith or greed, the more trite he sounds. But he's entirely in his element sticking to dominant/submissive sex -- asking who's wearing the trousers or who's behind the wheel -- and in recent years his voice has inched toward the fleshly thrust of hard rock and (at least in "Condemnation") gospel music. The group's attempts at hip-hop and disco rhythm have meanwhile loosened up, and they've learned that symphonic schlock in the pursuit of morose moods is no vice.

-- Chuck Eddy

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