Everything But the Girl, Temperamental
 (1999)

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.

David Bowie, Hours (1999)

Attempted sellout

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.

High-wired act (1999)

Originally Published 10/20/1999

outinthedarkinsta

Outrageous Cherry: Out There in the Dark
Label: Del-Fi
Format: Album
Media: CD/Vinyl
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?”

June of 44, Anahata (1999)

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.

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.

Mu-Ziq, Royal Astronomy (1999)

Mike Paradinas (mu-ziq) is, like his peers, Aphex Twin and Luke Vibert, a tremendous talent. In the brave new world of autistic dance music – which both flirts with and ignores the dance floor – Mike is the most brilliant of the idiot-savants, work-playing in the increasingly mined terrain of electronic music, from the break beats of hip hop to the ethereal computer-disco-meets-Alvin Toffler sounds of techno.

The personal twists of mu-ziq on this post-modern electronic music are his frequent forays into strings and atonal contemporary music, exemplified best by his latest record, Royal Astronomy, which nods to Schoenberg and Stockhausen – two old-time European gurus of 20th century musical deconstruction – as much as it does hip hop and drum ʼn’ bass. The question is, as in all cases of musical
hybridity – whether it be black slamming into white or DJ Red Alert floating along with Stravinsky – one of power: Who gets to do the cross-pollinating, for what audience, and for how much money? These days, itʼs talented heads such as
mu-ziq that get to decide what is included in todayʼs musical collages and what gets left out; what underground sources get mined out of their context and integrated into an increasingly privileged space where cultural politics takes a back seat to the lucrative search for the “cutting edge.”

So, when in “The Motorbike Track” a Gang Starr vocal is sampled – “Knock that shit off, for real, know what Iʼm saying, thatʼs some greedy-assed fake bullshit” — the ambivalence of Paradinasʼs position within electronic music – outside or inside, underground hipster or sold-out spin-maker, keeping it real or biting it hard, dropping the science or kicking it black-face – is made manifest. And though my sympathies lie with musical miscegenation rather than cultural conservatism, my “faking-the-funk” radar goes off when a few brilliant white kids get to tell the rest of the world whatʼs up in the urban underground–and then set it to strings.

Guided By Voices, Do the Collapse (1999)

Previously driven cars

I am not a fan of Guided by Voices because of their now mythical, rough-cut, non-sensical, lo-fi rock heroics: i.e. recording their music — partly by necessity, partly for its angsty realism — so it sounds like the underneath of an angry buzzsaw-table drowned among the weeds of a twisted British folk lyric. Instead I’m a fan of the deeply morbid three-and-a-half-minute-long pop anthems that have surfaced on GBV’s records since the band’s 1994 release, Bee Thousand (on longtime home Matador). Basically, I’ll take well-crafted pop brilliance over sonic devolution-revolution anytime.

That said, Do the Collapse features some of the best tunes Bob Pollard – the drunken, Princelike figure who commands 95 percent of GBV’s songwriting credits – has churned out, though the cynic in me notices that this breakthrough comes on an album produced by the Cars’ Rick Ocasek and released on the un-Matador-like label TVT. But when a sell-out sounds this good, only the most spoiled indie-rocker could whine. More to the point, when it means that GBV finally jettisons the lion’s share of its rock-retro fetishes – from wanna-be Beatles b-sides to REM necrophilia – then there’s hope that musical transcendence will win the day.

And it does. The singles are plentiful and the lyrics on such songs as “Hold On Hope” (“Well that’s the chance we take/ to be always working/ reaching out for/ the hand that we can’t see/ everybody’s got a hold on hope/ its the last thing that’s holding me”) are simply beautiful. This may be GBV’s version of a throwaway album – all more or less straightforward and sonically pleasing – but so what. The Cars never sounded this good.