The Worldhood of the World (as Such) (Alternative Tentacles)
NoMeansNo sound like the kids in the audience who actually enjoyed the poorly received pairing of Blue Öyster Cult and the Ramones in 1976 Long Island. They're obviously punk rockers, but the influence of art rock hangs over them like a methadone habit. So even though they attack the music with the feral core of punk, they also tend to elevate their songs to proportions worthy of Charlton Heston. When it's on, you get the boogie-woogie/jazz bass and drum workout of "Predators" or the amazing 78rpm war-on-dick-slaves of "Wiggly Worm." In spite of an incredible propensity for pulling off seemingly impossible change-ups at breakneck speeds, NoMeansNo never lose sight of the song itself, even when they're clocking in at six minutes plus. Their tome-like lyrics sometimes weigh down the longer and weaker songs (a relative distinction here), but the vocals are delivered with an appropriate alternation of power and restraint rather than the affected screams of most hardcore geeks. Once again, NoMeansNo manage to capture all the good intentions of the unlikely prog-punk hybrid without falling prey to the excessive gee-whiz bullshit inherent in the territory.
3 1/2 stars -- Greg Beets
Dear You (DGC)
This album is like someone you go out with just because they'll go out with you: you might have a nice time and learn a little, but there's no future without magnetism. I'm sure Jawbreaker are a buncha nice guys capable of making someone very happy, but Dear You makes me want to deliver the "Just Good Friends" speech. The problem certainly doesn't lie in Blake Schwarzenbach's lyrics. While some of his privileged, post-grad prose drips with excess quirk and irony, it rises far and away above the "intellectual intercourse" passed off as deep by whiners like Alanis Morissette. Without resorting to throwing a yelp-laden fit about crosses borne, Schwarzenbach strikes with a more subtle jibe like "Dreamt we were still going out/Had that one a few times now/Woke up to find out we were not/It's good to be awake." Schwarzenbach's tapestries of high school dorkdom ("Chemistry") and exes making out better than you at lame parties ("Bad Scene, Everyone's Fault") also ring authentic. Unfortunately, the songs just kind of lie there like music from a John Hughes-directed nightclub sequence. Rob Cavallo's flat production castrates the band even further. I can't figure out why anyone wouldn't give this music bang. The sad result is one of obfuscated talent in the name of radio friendliness.
2 1/2 stars -- Greg Beets
TWO FOOT FLAME
When you think of New Zealand rock, you probably entertain notions of pretty pop miracles a wee off-kilter, but you certainly wouldn't peg Two Foot Flame like that for fear of being doused with the aural equivalent of burning jet-black bile. This trio of mechanical-minded melody-makers play their instruments like flaming drill presses, but instead of giving you a headache, Two Foot Flame deliver insidiously simple sounds that multiply in your head until you're one of them. An esoteric form of pop song is salvaged out of the refuse of endless riff repetition and TV hiss while Peter Jefferies pounds out hypnotic, neo-tribal rhythms a la White Light/White Heat. At the same time, Jean Smith's embittered vocal delivery hints alternately at Patti Smith and Algebra Suicide, which only serves to build on the futuristic nihilism underlying the music. Two Foot Flame are provocative and glorious in their own way, but they sure don't sound like a band from such a beautiful country. 4 stars -- Greg Beets
There's probably a killer middle ground to be found between Pantera and Rage Against the Machine, only the Deftones aren't it. What they've obviously overlooked on this forgettable debut is that Pantera's secret lies in groove, not rage, and that Rage guitarist Tom Morrello's innovations, mimicked here by Stephen Carpenter, were more about offbeat rhythm than flashy filler. And as for the Deftones themselves, they're all about unoriginal whisper-to-scream songwriting, repetitive riffs, and frontman Chino Moreno's overblown bowels-of-hell shouts, which taken together is more pitifully one-dimensional than it should have been. As such, the one star below is only meant as a reward for having the balls to name their record in homage to Def Leppard.
1 star -- Andy Langer
It's Great When You're Straight ... Yeah! (Radioactive)
When Americans get really depressed, I mean really, really depressed, like turn-up-the-Cure-and-break-out-the-carbon-monoxide depressed, one thought never fails to console them: "Well, at least I'm not British." I mean, really, could you imagine millions of red-blooded Americans getting their knickers in a knot over Oasis? And Blur?!? Puh-leeze! Is it something in the water? Maybe the same thing that makes their teeth look so godawful? But I digress. I came to praise those damn Brits, not to bury them. You see, every once in a while their advanced state of degeneracy works in their favor, and they fathom depths we Yanks don't even have names for yet. Like Black Grape. Don't even ask me what this stuff is, like maybe New Order takes uppers and goes to Jamaica by way of North Africa and upper Mississippi, or something even more convoluted than that. But by the same token, find me something from this country that commands you to shake your skanky little ass like this. Couldn't do it? Didn't think so. Cheerio!
3 stars -- Christopher Gray
New Beginning (Elektra)
Picture the throes of ecstasy at KGSR the day the new Tracy Chapman CD arrived. You know how tense they were over there waiting for the perfect disc to sandwich in between the Jayhawks and "Free as a Bird" since 101X copped their copy of Cracked Rear View. Well, they can uncross their legs now. Here it is, and here comes Chapman bursting out of the "Where Are They Now?" file singing "Start All Over" but sounding exactly like she did when "Fast Car" was one of the prime reasons this whole AAA thing started up. Unless you're a Chapman fan -- and no, this disc won't make you choke on your granola -- this album will be of historical interest only because it must be one of the last ones Don Gehman produced before he unleashed the Hootie virus on an unsuspecting but all-too-willing nation. Think about it: how seriously can you take a record that calls itself New Beginning, but whose best song, "Give Me One Reason," was written in 1986? (Tracy Chapman plays the Austin Music Hall February 2)
2 stars -- Christopher Gray
All You Can Eat (Warner Bros.)
The crits' and public's reaction to this LP has been mixed so far and it's justified: Lang herself seems to be languishing in ambivalence here. The tunes are smooth, cool, and damn well listenable, but there's an underlying degree of reticence and melancholy that suggests Lang is a bit unsure of herself. She's touching on something, but not quite achieving a grip. Many of the songs seem like rehashings of each other. A few ideas in lyrical and musical motif keep reincarnating themselves over and over in various emotional, rhythmic, and tonal forms, yet never achieve the fruition and polish one expects of Lang. All You Can Eat is still a decent effort (Lang on a bad day is better than half the industry on its best), so let's just call this a "work in progress" rather than a bona fide LP.
2 stars -- Joe Mitchell
Deeper Water (Vanguard)
When I saw this Australian play with David Wilcox here in the spring, I was quite bemused by his joy of being in the homeland of his heroes, the Flatlanders, and by his abundant chutzpah as he took Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "Dallas (from a DC-9)," and rendered it "Sydney (from a 727)." But despite all his homage to Gilmore and an affection for Butch Hancock-esque one-guy/one-guitar rambling, this newest LP sounds more like Irishman Luka Bloom playing with Jackson Browne's band. The songs are superb, but the production, more often than not, is over the top. The instrumentation tends to get in the way of the lyrics, which is terribly unfortunate, because good lyrics, are what Kelly is all about. But there are those precious moments when Kelly's voice takes command or gets just enough leeway to peek above the fracas ("Queen Stone," "Deeper Water"). These are the moments that save this LP from drowning in its own ambition.
2 1/2 stars -- Joe Mitchell
JOE GRUSHECKY AND THE HOUSEROCKERS
American Babylon (Razor and Tie)
All the promo material that came with this LP screams so loudly about Bruce Springsteen's involvement that the real artist gets lost in the fray. El Jefe produced, co-wrote a couple of fine songs, and played guitar on a majority of tracks, but it's Rust Belt Rocker Grushecky's pen and voice that make this one of the most impressive roots-rock LPs this reviewer has ever heard. Grushecky eschews all the "hoodoo," "mojo," and other machismo-burdened roots-rock conventions for an intelligent and soulful approach that reveals a man of emotional fervor and a strong sense of self and place. The images are of life as it is today (the title cut and "Talk Show" angrily ponder the ugly, "white trash" media image that has zapped the working class of dignity) and how it was for his Iron City forefathers ("Homestead" and "What Did You Do in the War"). Even Grushecky's love songs are staunchly blue collar. They are of the "if we ain't got money, we got each other" variety that hold steady to the high road of temperament, never swaying an inch toward the maudlin or cartoonish. This is a venerable LP which reassures that the viability of real music by real people for real people hasn't been completely lost on the music biz.
3 1/2 stars -- Joe Mitchell
For over 50 years, baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne has been influencing the progression of modern jazz. Raised on Planet Brooklyn in the company of JJ Johnson, Roy Eldridge, and Dizzy Gillespie, Payne acquired an extended education in bebop while he developed into an accomplished improvisor. As his aesthetic matured he expanded the curriculum of bebop by translating the lyricism of his mentor Lester Young across the chordal structure of his compositions. On his current release, Cerupa, Payne leads a sextet on a mission to promote the pairing of thematic melody and rhythmic complexity. Exploratory by nature, his adaptation of Ravel's "Bolero" serves as a fine example of creative reconstruction. With a rich tone and majestic phrasing, Payne introduces his ability to play the flute on the title track and a Latin piece called "Bosco." Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard makes a guest appearance on "Be Wee" with a scorching solo that blurs the distinction between individual notes. Throughout the album, Payne's saxophone expressions protrude as the meat of the dish, but his mind for balanced texture implied by his musical concept may be what actually makes the work appealing.
3 1/2 stars -- Rashied Gabriel
The Ghost of Tom Joad (Columbia)
Mr. Springsteen, despite living at a severe distance from we mere mortals, seems to have his forefingers planted firmly on the pulse of a terrified nation grappling with crime, racism, poverty, despair, and a seemingly irreversible slide into the valley of the Third World. Hot soup on a campfire under a bridge, shelter line stretchin' `round the corner -- welcome to the New World Order, sings Springsteen on the title track, failing to mention that his beloved label (owned by Sony) is no small catalyst of that Order. One can go on forever about the inherent contradictions, the disparity of experience betwixt subject and songster going on here, and hell, even listener and songster, but one thing is sure: Springsteen poured a lot of heart, soul, and mind into writing this LP. As the title would indicate, Ghost... has literary aspirations. But the images, characters, settings, and plots Springsteen weaves here are so vivid and three-dimensional that they forsake the realm of Steinbeck for that of John Ford, jettisoning the literary for the cinematic. Every cut, save the first and last, which serve respectively as the LP's introduction and conclusion, is a drama in three acts. In "Highway 29," a simple barkeeper is seduced by a woman in Act 1, robs a bank with her in Act 2, and dies with her in a car crash on a mountain pass in Act 3. "Galveston Bay" introduces two fisherman, one Vietnamese, the other U.S. born, then moves on to a self-defense killing of a Klansman by the Vietnamese man, with an uneasy mutual tolerance between the two characters in the final act. All the stories are unique on the surface, but one theme runs throughout: America is ripping apart at the seams. This assertion is far from new and even further from provoking ecstasy from sea to shining sea. Yet Springsteen lays it out with such clear insight and powerful soul that not only is the current alarm made louder, but these times of tribulation are actually rendered in a resoundingly poetic light. (Bruce Springsteen plays the Austin Music Hall January 25.)
4 1/2 stars -- Joe Mitchell
Laughing Gallery (Venture/American)
Whomever actually masterminded 1995's Cheap Trick revival is anybody's guess, but every garage band in America can move on, because Ruth Ruth has definitively nailed it. With buzzing guitars, simple grooves, and witty self-referential sex, drugs, and rock & roll retreads, Ruth Ruth is luckily as Smart Smart as they had to be -- mostly because anybody with a lesser knack for distinctive stand-alone pop hooks would fall all over themselves recycling the same pop structures as Rick Neilsen's monster. And although there's evidence on the album opener and single, "Uninvited," that, like Cheap Trick, Ruth Ruth's not afraid of commercial concessions, it's not until Laughing Gallery wizzes by perhaps two or three times that it becomes obvious Chris Kennedy's hyperkentic vocals are actually far more intensely soulful than typical of the recent glut of pop for punk's sake. So come to think of it, perhaps making a pop record as singularly digestible ("Uptight") and disenfranchised ("I Killed Meg the Prom Queen") as Laughing Gallery isn't just a cheap trick.
3 1/2 stars -- Andy Langer
By combining hypnotic beds of trip-hop, folksy instrumentation, and sophisticated guitar-groove dynamics, Poe's perhaps more experimental and clever than any debut artist should be. But when she's at her anthemic best ("Angry Johnny," "Trigger Happy Jack" and "Junkie"), she actually does herself and all of us one better by single-handedly debunking Liz Phair and Alanis Morissette, finding a completely seductive power in innuendo their gutter-mouths can't touch. "Angry Johnny" is perhaps her most perfect piece of evidence. And even if it's not the radio smash it seems destined to be, Hello itself more than follows through on her threat.
4 stars -- Andy Langer
ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL
Wheel Keeps on Rollin' (Capitol)
Whatever Asleep at the Wheel may have been at one time, all of the juice has run out. To me there's always been way too much Manhattan Transfer going on to even consider calling them (whatever group of brand new members they may be harboring) Bob Wills revivalists, which Ray Benson proudly thinks they continue to be. The only song on here that comes close is "How the West Was Swung." What they don't understand is that the cool thing about Bob Wills was that he was a little weird and kind of worried about it. I'll admit it's weird to do two crappy versions (there's an inexplicable extended remix) of "Layla" on one album, but I don't think they're worried about it. This is so whitebread as to be difficult to listen to.
1 1/2 stars -- Kirven Blount
Down By the Old Mainstream (Rykodisc)
Blame Eric Clapton for the "supergroup" -- bloated egos, paydays, and press coverage -- and the idea that rare elements can result in musical fusion rather than slaps on the back and mediocrity for all. Certainly there's plenty of that on this gathering of ex-Tupelos (Jeff Tweedy), Jayhawks (Gary Louris, Mark Pearlman), and Soul Asylum escapees (Dan Murphy) -- mediocrity, that is. Take the songs: They're simple and stupid, feeling like slapdash studio jams -- a suspicion borne out by a couple notable song fades. David Spear and Jarret Decatur (Murphy and Run Westy Run's Kraig Johnson) singing? Don't and next. But wait, Decatur's snorter "He's a Dick" may also be the best tune on the album -- helped immeasurably by Murphy's tasty slide. In fact, on an album full of lazy, back-porch strumming, Murphy's guitar playing always stands out. And Gary Louris. Hail Gary Louis. Ex-partner Mark Olson may have run off with Victoria Williams to be the John and Yoko of the alt country set, but Louris really stands out here, making the opener "V" vintage Jayhawks. Scott Summit (Tweedy -- don't ask me about the nom de tunes) still is doing a great Uncle Tupelo ("Won't Be Coming Home"), and when he and Louis get together on a couple of cuts you've got your fusion. Chemistry. Just like rest of the album. Come to think of it, I liked that Blind Faith album. And Layla.
3 1/2 stars -- Raoul Hernandez
SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK
Sacred Ground (EarthBeat!)
Because Austin's only African-American radio station is buried on the FM dial just barely to the right of where the knob won't turn anymore, records like Sacred Ground are doomed to come and go almost unnoticed. Talk about injustice -- it's right up there with what this female a capella group talks about on "No More Auction Block" and "Stay on the Battlefield." First of all, these women have pipes that put Mariah Carey to shame and more rhythm than Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis combined. Next, instead of "Baby Baby Baby Baby (Baby)," their subject matter goes beyond a note on your pillow the next morning ... way beyond, like to the next life, world, consciousness, or whatever it is you believe (and these ladies are righteous enough to recognize that it doesn't really matter). Sacred Ground is an organic record, connecting upbeat, doo-woppy spirituals ("Can't Hide Sinner," "I Remember, I Believe," "Jesus Is All") with New Age esoterica ("Mystic Oceans," "Inner Voices") and lengthy song-cycles ("Sing O Barren One" "Jordan River") with the singular theme of spirituality, and held together by faith. These women will never crack commercial radio, and it's a shame, because unlike the diva du jour, these women know where they're going when the battle is over.
3 stars -- Christopher Gray
BRIAN WILSON & VAN DYKE PARKS
Orange Crate Art (Warner Bros.)
The last release with Brian Wilson's name on it, I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, may have been an abomination, but this is far worse. The music wasn't even composed by Wilson -- the only point of Brian Wilson is the music in his deranged brain -- but by Van Dyke Parks, a lyricist collaborator from genius songs like "Heroes and Villains," "Wonderful," and "Sail on Sailor." This latest exploitation of Wilson sounds like a Beach Boys caricature -- terribly average songs bludgeoned with aggressive harmonic clubs, grossly nostalgic lyrics about California (in the Sixties, the Beach Boys were singing about a scene that was very much alive), and the adult voice of Brian Wilson that critics of late have very generously been calling "childlike." Once, it was a flawless tenor. Now, it's gone the way of the loud, fat, freckled kid whose voice used to carry above the others in the grade school choir, like a warbling duck or a car horn with a short circuit. If that's childlike, so be it, but it's endearing only for a few minutes, then it's chafing as all hell. So's this album.
1 1/2 stars -- Mindy LaBernz
Beast of Dreams (Trance Syndicate)
Houston's Pain Teens are renowned for industrial-strength musical nihilism accented by a liberal helping of allusions to bondage and serial killers. Consequently, it's a surprise to slap on "Swimming," the first cut on Beast of Dreams, and hear something more akin to mid-Eighties Siouxsie & the Banshees. Yup, vocalist Bliss Blood purrs lyrics right out of a Black Forest Harlequin Romance as multi-talented instrumentalist/producer Scott Ayers layers on enough tribal rhythm and Eastern influence to keep the music interesting. After the first two tracks, the Teens harken back to their industrial wasteland tack, but it doesn't come off as abrasive as their earlier work. Dare I say mature? Throw in some marketing goon and this could pass as a Calgon-take-me-away soundtrack for the boys and girls who spent their youths cloaked in black, waiting for the bombs to drop.
2 1/2 stars -- Greg Beets
Of all the bands from the great Sub Pop global takeover of 1989, the short-lived Dickless was my unapologetic favorite -- sloppy, sludgy, all-female punk fronted by the sandpaper-voiced Kelly Canary. Shows would last 20 minutes, wrap up with their deconstruction of Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man," and people could not get enough. Canary is back in music after years of managing a chain record store, she's learned guitar, and she's pulled an ex-bandmate and an ex-cheerleader into a new girl gang flaunting its grunge roots without shame. When drummer Lisa Smith and bassist Julie Ransweiler lock into a slow power-plod at the end of "Tijuana Pavement Princess," for instance, it's clear that they're either tongue-in-cheek grunge or have just emerged from a seven-year time capsule. Canary, between her reckless Mudhoney guitar and unrelenting rasp, is the star court jester here, but Houstonite Smith is a phenomenal drummer, and the album's formula is perfect: 12 songs, 25 minutes, everything circling back to a voice so excoriating you'll be moved to running commentary. Anything more would be taxing; anything less would be disappointing. (Teen Angels play Emo's January 27)
3 1/2 stars -- Phil West