What’s with Watt?
Confident that they were still songwriters and not beat junkies, singer Tracey Thorn and multi-instrumentalist-arranger Ben Watt let dance floor artists Todd Terry and Spring Heel Jack take them into the middle-’90s. They aided and abetting the duo on Walking Wounded (1996) – a record that utilized rather than aped house music and gave the humble-looking pair a sleek, gorgeous sheen. The triumph, though, was all Watt’s – his song arrangements stood solid among the new, sophisticated sounds escaping from the clubs, successfully sidestepping comparisons to existing cutting-edge dance music by favoring songs, not tracks.
But three years after being labeled “sophisticated” rather than “shameless,” EBTG has lost its good judgement. With Temperamental, Watt and Thorn give up too much in order to swing with the Jennifer Lopezes and Madonnas of the world.
EBTG’s lyrical focus is still strong, though. Thorn sings sweetly of the banality of modern life in “Low Tide of the Night” (“London in the low tide of the night/not a taxi cab in sight/anaesthetized I start the journey home”). Later, she brings its shocking realities home with the heartbeat trip-hop quiet of “Hatfield 1980” (“I’m seeing my first knife/my first ambulance ride/I hold your hand the whole way/crying”).
But Tracey Thorn, the one-time Massive Attack chanteuse, has never been – and never should be – a house diva. The beats are too quick and thick now, forcing Thorn’s voice underneath and between the mix, marginalizing the power and delivery she had achieved on Walking Wounded. Now, instead of concentrating on Thorn’s stories about personal trials, breakups and end-of-the-earth living, the listener is forced to engage Watt’s beats – an unfortunate result. As if to prove the point, the best dance track here isn’t Watt’s, it’s Deep Dish’s “The Future of the Future,” which saves the record from hip-house-irrelevance but leaves EBTG looking more like cynical opportunists than sophisticated troubadours.
Complete artistic control, working with Brian Eno again, critical praise for the first time in almost 20 years, living to see his 50th birthday – you’d think David Bowie would have been happy with his last two outings, but he’s not. Bowie just wants to be a rock star again. Hours, his heavily hyped new record, is what he hopes will get him there, despite (or because) it sounds like a pandering, cloying, comedically barren Sting album – with wankier guitars.
After two albums of space-age-provocateur music – the Eno-involved Outside (1995) and the drum ’n’ bass-inspired Earthling (1996) – Hours is as straightforward and mainstream an album as Bowie could make. It’s complete with 10 tracks in about 45 minutes, a traditional guitar-bass-drums setup and Bowie’s voice right on top, with no doubling of voices, spoken word segues, abrasive drum loops and – importantly for the straight-in-our-time Bowie – no disturbing talk of devious sexuality.
But Bowie’s plan is cursed by Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels (who gets writing and wanking credit on all 10 tracks) as well as Bowie’s refusal to rock ’n’ roll. His last two records, – tough-minded outings into electronica, sonic cityscapes and sexual introspection, – had a sense of rhythm and humor, mixing musical high-mindedness with Bowie’s love for the musical lowbrow to strong results. Hours, on the other hand, is all heavy rock guitar nonsense, more in line with the last Ozzy record than some sort of return to the good old days, whether you think they were Space Oddity or Lodger.
Tragically, Hours really does seem like an attempt by Bowie to reconnect lyrically on an emotional level, not just to pop music but to an audience beyond his always-ready fans. But all rock and no roll makes Bowie a dull boy, despite some interesting post-introspective lyrics (“Something about me stood apart/a whisper of hope that seemed to fail/maybe I’m born right out of my time/breaking my life in two”) and vocals that rarely show their age.
Originally Published 10/20/1999
Outrageous Cherry: Out There in the Dark
Release Date: 1999
Genre: Post rock
Outrageous Cherry (Deb Agolli, Chad Gilchrist, Larry Ray and the locally omnipresent Matthew Smith) are now on their fourth record in six years, getting an incredible amount of power and distance from musical forms – Stones, Yardbirds, Velvets – that date back to the Johnson administration. But don’t be fooled by the wolf-of-a-rock-band in ’60s-garage-sheep’s-clothing; OC comes to play, covering both rock (“Tracy” and “Song for Inoshiro Honda”) and mope-rock (“Easy Come, Easy Glow,” “It’s Always Never”) with more pop-kitsch-per-square-inch mastery than any band since Big Star.
Which is the only downer about Out There in the Dark at all; the band’s choice of production effects – stuck somewhere between Brian Wilson’s bedroom and Iggy’s fender-pressing dreams – make about as much sense in the hip-pop ’90s as the new Volkswagen Bug. But by the time OC hits the provocatively titled “Where Do I Go When You Dream?,” grabbing the useful bits from the Beach Boys and throwing out the rest (all that Four Freshman bullshit), what decade it is really doesn’t matter.
Remember: Retro only matters if the band doing it can make it sound like there is unfinished rock ’n’ roll business to be done. OC brings the garage-schlock back to the table because Smith et al. have scores to settle.
The kicker is “There’s No Escape from the Infinite,” an incredibly broad yet controlled 10-minute rave-up that ends the album. It surfs the space between irony and earnestness with a skill that is as uncanny and spooky as it is gorgeous. You can almost hear Smith laughing: “Who’s the president now?”
Anything can show up on a June of 44 album – typewriters, Moog synths, melodic-skronk guitars, avant-howling, Miles at Fillmore-esque trumpet, start-stop Studebaker drums, the familiar incantations of a shipʼs captain explaining deserted shores and hearts – which makes deciphering the bandʼs comings and goings since 1995 more than a little challenging. But recently the boys had gotten into a nonformulaic rut. Four Great Points (1998) found them at a rather disagreeable crossroads where the dub undertones populating albums such as 1997ʼs The Anatomy of Sharks had worn themselves out and Jeff Muellerʼs howling, though seemingly cathartic for him, was anything but for anyone within earshot.
Anahata, on the other hand, visits June of 44 on a calmer day at sea. There is virtually no screaming, with the band consciously making room for its newfound interest in the written word by publishing the lyrics to the songs inside the album. Now, along with the standard navigational song titles (“Escape of the Levitational Trapeze Artist” and “Equators to Bi-polar”), there are even more elliptical thoughts and phrases to juggle, from the simple themes of “Wear Two Eyes” (“On my back I wear two eyes/those that see a better life”) to the almost-alarming hippie charm of the 10-minute-plus closer, “Peel Away Valleity” (“I have an ambiguous dream of you serene/surrounded in a sunflower scene”).
In a wonderful change in (or return to) form, Anahata illuminates a quixotic image of June of 44 as a band interested in lyrical playfulness as much as musical thoughtfulness – a band that creates a sonic narrative where questions of “why American indie rock?” dissolve into the spaces between Doug Sharinʼs drum fills.