Nowcore! The Punk Rock Evolution (1999)

Itʼs been well over 20 years since punk started, so it would be great to report that the punk underground is doing what it should be doing long after its survival has been guaranteed – you know, putting together a stormy mix of music reminiscent of Ritchie Valens going down on Etta James while she spins Yellow Magic Orchestra with Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. But the truth hurts: The white middle-class youth of this country are apparently hanging out with the white middle-class youth of this country. They have, in effect, created a genre of race music, ending this century like we began it, with white people like Josh Hooten, in the liner notes of Nowcore!, declaring that they have the inside track on “being a human on planet earth.”

Nowcore! The Punk Rock Evolution is a hard-core compilation featuring the “best” of this countryʼs most insular musical genre, from the one-time chart-registering drivel of Hum (“Stars”) to the ex-Dischord lackluster of Jawbox (“Savory”). What is hardcore, you might ask? According to this album, it requires above-average guitar skills (i.e. better than the Ramones) but below-average songwriting skills (i.e. a shitload worse than the Ramones). Of course, if this were its only problem, than the album would merely suck. Instead, for whatever god-awful reason, there are also no women in this collection, which makes Nowcore!ʼs claim to be at the top of the evolutionary arc that much more laughable.

Any exceptions? “Why Did Ever We Meet,” the Promise Ring track that starts things off, because the bandʼs musical honesty doesnʼt seem to hurt my ears as much as the protestations of bands like Seaweed; and Modest Mouseʼs “Convenient Parking,” mainly because the band sounds like a dilapidated version of Gang of Four – which is a compliment.

P.S. I Love You, Liberty or Death (1999)

For those Detroit youths who came of age during the Reagan years and found shoegazing and early alt-rockʼs oceanic guitar feedback as energizing as the sound of Ford-metal-machine music was for Iggy Pop, the lure of Liberty or Deathʼs opening salvo – “Where on Earth is Kevin Shields?”– should be enough for at least a few novelty listens.

Luckily, there seems to be more happening with P.S. I Love You than this simple My Bloody Valentine namecheck. Liberty or Death is a melange of songs culled from post-Majesty Crush side projects headed by vocalist David Stroughter, former frontman for that now-defunct early ʼ90s bliss-rock outfit. P.S. I Love You has been in existence in one form or another since 1996, but has only recently put together enough steam to release a full-length record and a consistent live lineup. So P.S. I Love Youʼs future depends largely on whether or not Stroughter and friends can capitalize on the better moments of this at times wonderful (but in the end wonderfully mediocre) long-player.

The album is heavy with great ideas: The impudent opening riff to “Where on Earth… ?,” the Shakermaker-esque vocal churn of “No Sharks Allowed,” and the Storm In Heaven arrangements of “Unless I See You Again” and “New York,” both of which lend the project a sense of beauty. But the songs seem to delve into high school diary material more than once: my first time in New York (“New York”), my first hydroponic experience (“Windmill Friends”), my first love (“P.S. I Love You”).

These songs sound more like good demos than the grand statements for which P.S. I Love You strives. All of which makes Stroughterʼs sense of urgency sound strained over the spare arrangements, like an ungainly teenager stuck in shoes three sizes too small. Like Majesty Crush, which released a single on British indie label Ché, P.S. I Love You has kept its connection to the British indie scene by releasing its first 45 (“Where On Earth is Kevin Shields?”/”No Sharks Allowed”) on Londonʼs space-edged Rocket Girl label. But the band will need more than indie-cred if it is to live up to the promise offered by Stroughterʼs grand mannerisms or the will of the band to remake the world – or just Detroit – in its own out-of-focus image.

Tricky et al, Juxtapose (1999)

Tricky w/DJ Muggs and Grease, Juxtapose (Island-Durgan Poison)

Hip-hopped

Tricky’s gift is that he cares about hip hop enough to trash it. Like Johnny Rotten’s version of “Johnny B. Goode,” Tricky’s version of Public Enemy’s “Black Steel” on his debut, Maxinquaye, favored destroying the song in order to preserve its essential power and terror. With his vocalist cohort on “Black Steel,” Martina – Lauryn Hill meets Lydia Lunch – Tricky created a place where the old school wasn’t safe and retro but disturbing and confrontational, reactionary and shallow, lyrically drugged and spiritually splintered. Tricky and the smoky world he created – filled with failed neo-new jacks, stalled turntables and malfunctioning samplers – breathes new life into hip hop and shows his audience what he hears at the music’s roots: both a glimpse of heaven and the manifold terror of the modern world.

This context and his creative track record makes Tricky’s new album, Juxtapose, that much more disappointing. The album features Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs, DMX producer Grease, Martina’s replacement Kioka and underground Brit Mad Dog – all of whom provide Tricky the opportunity to mix things up and show the world something different. But instead of being different, Juxtapose is just plain boring. The album’s new characters become gimmicks after only a few listens. (It’s only 35 minutes long, with a fuckin’ remix, no less!) Rapper Mad Dog’s 120 bpm delivery sounds more like a drop of lyrical wanking than a tasteful bit of fusion. Similarly, the production on “Hot Like a Sauna” – which takes Master P. straight on by biting the No Limit kingpin – sounds about as convincing as Master P. (which I hope wasn’t the point).

Tricky has already crafted a diverse terrain of breakbeat decay and lyrical dysfunction, raising the schizophrenisonic bar of excellence on each successive record. This makes hanging out with a DMX producer come off like attempting to jump back into the closet after coming out at Thanksgiving dinner! (And when the hell did DMX ever cross-dress?!)

So when Tricky intones on “For Real” that his craft is “not real/it’s just passing time/all I do is rhyme,” one begins to wonder if he’s ever listened to his own records. He has never “just rhymed,” but instead has musically questioned rhyming itself. That’s what has made Tricky’s triumphs so triumphant and his failures, like Juxtapose, that much more disappointing.

Superchunk, Come Pick Me Up (1999)

For almost ten years Superchunk (Jon Wurster, drums; Mac McCaughan, guitar, vocals; Jim Wilbur, guitar; Laura Balance, bass) have written, recorded, toured and distributed their own records—a trillion of them plus singles and EPs—while also signing bands, selling T-shirts, doing press, and answering Mergeʼs telephone. In an ironic twist, Superchunk has become what people in the ʼ70s and ʼ80s referred to the ʼ60s superstar-hippies as: survivors. Yet this pseudo-tribute, tantamount to having a statue made in your honor while you are still alive (a nice thought, but really, Iʼm not dead yet), just doesnʼt do justice to the continued power of Superchunkʼs music or its continued impact on underground rock ʼnʼ roll.

Its new album, Come Pick Me Up — produced by Jim OʼRourke, the Quincy Jones of Americaʼs pop-avant-garde — is an open love letter to Superchunkʼs DIY followers, a love that is at times critical and menacing but never distant or removed. Instead, in songs such as “1000 Pounds” and “Tiny Bombs” Superchunk has provided a stirring document, full of praise and self-doubt, distant longing and public confession, about what it means to be punk rock long after the thrill of living is gone.

The killer we-told-you-so-but-itʼs-OK track here is “June Showers,” whose nursery school guitar riff mimics the nursery rhyme offerings of major labels who do it all, as Mac intones, “because they care for you.” But it is the sweetness of Macʼs chorus, confidently pleading, “Iʼm hoping for the coolest showers in June/a transfusion that might keep you from giving up/donʼt give up,” that gives the song and the album its soul. For what is punk rock but soul music turned upside down, irony and laughter filling in for “baby” and “Lord have mercy,” while the true desire—for a new world, a new day—seeps in through the static in the amps.