Record Reviews


GO TO BLAZES

Waiting Around for the Crash (ESD)

By noon it's too hot to hunt. The sea of strawcolored hills is as hopeless and unforgiving as any desert. Animals rest in the shadows, hidden, so you go back to the crooked boards masquerading as a cabin. There's nothing to do except drink, but you're still sick from the night before. You pour a couple of beers into your rotted gut, but you can't fucking get drunk. So you sit in the heat, sweating like you've got malaria. Typhoid. Tuberculosis. Soul sickness and decay. Someone starts talking about a woman, and soon the smell of whiskey hangs on three-day-old beards. From there, it's a descent into madness. A shot gun blast goes off, someone cranks a Steve Earle tape, a little Hank Jr., -- later some Stones -- and the howls and barks pollute the night. 'Round 4 or 5am, there's still a couple of you left sitting, muttering bitterly, stupid from the booze and malaise. This is the ritual. This is the album.
HHH 1/2 -- Raoul Hernandez


NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS

Murder Ballads (Reprise)

It's all too easy to joke that the world's most mordant saloon singer has been singing murder ballads from out of the womb. But things are never that simple, and the baldfaced nature of the title simply preps you for a collection of pieces Cave claims he's wanted to record for years. By now, there's little that can surprise about Cave: When you pick up one of his records, you expect a certain Southern Gothic, highly dramatic, and dark brand of music. Not that there's anything boring or predictable about what Cave does, but the only real shocks here are that it's taken Cave so long to record that mother of all Southern kill tunes, "Stagger Lee" (rendered in a thoroughly profane version bearing little melodic or rhythmic resemblance to the familiar one), and that he's duetting with Aussie disco queen Kylie Minogue on one tune ("Where The Wild Roses Grow"). Still, this has got to be some of the darkest, most Brecht- Weillian blues Cave has offered yet. But that version of "Build Me Up, Buttercup" is hardly on its way.

HHH -- Tim Stegall


SYD STRAW

War and Peace (Capricorn)

With a six-year gap between records, Surprise, the title of Straw's first album, is better suited for her second release, War and Peace, whosesongs break down into the dichotomy suggested by the title. Instead, they fall neatly into three categories: The good, the bland and the ugly. The good are fierce, near-perfect pop songs. "The Toughest Girl in the World," an I-am-woman-hear-me-cringe anathema, and "CBGB's" are both powerful concessions to the downsides of relationships. Bonus points go to Straw for picking the Skeletons as her backing band (and for using Soylent Green in a lyric). Even on slower numbers, Straw is captivating if for no other reason than her delivery is fairly impassioned. But on several occasions Straw lets anger turn into self-pity and the results range from bland ("Madrid") to dreary and heavy-handed ("All Things Change," "Almost as Blue"). As for the ugly, it's a nauseating tune called "Howl," which fortunately doesn't seriously mar the rest of the CD.

HHH -- Michael Bertin


TISH HINOJOSA

Dreaming from the Labyrinth (Warner Bros.)

Dreaming from the Labyrinth's hermetic world is a tiny, suffocating sphere in dire need of space. Luckily, Hinojosa is smart enough to know that achieving such is no stroll on the nature trail. One false move can crack the delicate membrane between the subconscious and physical realm, and pfffft, it's just more fodder for Americana format freaks. Hinojosa moves slowly and deliberately, gently raising just enough surface tension on her meditations on conflict between inner and outer life to render a little more breathing room and still retain the divider's integrity. The instrumentation is the mainstay of her meticulous atlas. It's dry and airy, sparse like an open desertscape, leaving faint impressions of Ennio Morricone. The lyrics are a solid foundation on which it stands, a veritable textbook for Writing Economics 101. Hinojosa keeps the lid tight. When we finally arrive at the big sky of "God's Open Road" (the next to last cut), we breath a big sigh of relief, but can't help thinking that when we go through that tunnel up ahead, every breath could be our last.

HHHH -- Joe Mitchell


BOB NEUWIRTH

Look Up (Watermelon)

Bob Neuwirth may be one of the finest producers to ever grace a studio. Oddly enough, though, Look Up virtually nixes that role as well as that of the studio. Twelve of 16 cuts were recorded in the living rooms, log cabins, and inner sancta of various Neuwirth compadres around the globe. As the liner notes say, Neuwirth and pals (luminaries aplenty: Butch Hancock, Rosie Flores, Ned Albright, Steven Soles for starts) wanted to "make music and take its picture." In form, these photos are a family album. In substance, they give Ansel Adams a run for the money. There are some fine keepsakes here of Neuwirth's warmly weathered voice, Victoria Williams' sweet warble, Gurf Morlix's slide guitar and Charlie Sexton on violin. But it's the songs themselves that will get the frames. Neuwirth knows how to breath life into characters and give flesh to his own psyche. Patti Smith's chilling mutterings on "Just Like You" are a sobering cruise down the one-way street of life, giving an implicit nod to its detours and ultimate destination. Neuwirth doesn't drive a Benz on his photo safari down this street, but whatever he's driving, it's got plenty of soul packed in the trunk.

HHHH -- Joe Mitchell


KING'S X

Ear Candy (Atlantic)

Seven years ago King's X outdid themselves with Gretchen Goes To Nebraska, a brilliant middle ground between Zeppelin's mystic stomp and the Beatle's psychedelic harmonies. The Houston trio's three records since have regrettably covered much the same ground with less effect, although so have latecomers Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains, who succeeded where King's X failed by skipping the pretentious space/god ponderings that wasted so many of their quality post-Gretchen hooks. But Ear Candy's streamlined dynamics provide the sonic step backward that sets up a lyrical leap forward, as they run from love, religion, and their tired old selves with a subtle tinge of angst. That they've also made the appropriate melodic revelations makes all the difference and allows for the simple drive of "Sometimes," and the lush beauty of "Lies in the Sand," which together meet in the band's most natural offering yet, "Fathers." And because it's all so remarkably graceful, Ear Candy's nothing short of a return to form.
HHH -- Andy Langer


METALLICA

Load (Elektra)

You can already hear the grumbling: A low-pitched, hollow roar. It's Metallica fans bitching that the band's first album in five years doesn't sound like a Metallica record. Of course, they're dead wrong. There's still tons of the car crusher-force riffs these four built their name upon, but with little of the velocity (that became an endangered species on their last LP). There's also still quite a bit of what someone dubbed James Hetfield's trademark "apocalyptic party animal" lyrical attitude prevalent. But Load merely continues a process begun with Metallica: These guys want to expand their stylistic parameters, something you can't fault 'em for. Unfortunately, fans of Big Dumb Rock can be as closed-minded and exacting as any opera or jazz snob, and to hear Metallica get more subtle, learn the importance of groove-oriented music making, set ther guitars on a mode other than stun or blitz -- maybe even (God forbid) throw in a slide guitar or two... well, they feel abandoned. What such toads will never understand is that purposely spinning the wheels of a Lamborghini in the same mudhole your entire career just to please a blinkered public is boring.
HHH -- Tim Stegall


KUSTOMIZED

At the Vanishing Point (Matador)

The post-punk Boston rock scene of the Eighties featured bands such as Mission of Burma, Volcano Suns, and Bullet LaVolta, all of whom were more influential than successful. What a surprise, then, when former members of such bands form a band like Kustomized to mine the proto-punk roots of the Stooges and the Seeds. Drummer Peter Prescott leads the band through screeching, bashing pleas like a slightly nutty general, but it's the exquisite guitar interplay that keeps the band's music interesting. And let's not forget the additive bass riffs underlying "Hound" and "Film," or the mad cover of Government Issue's "Bored to Death." From the sound of their backwards-looking innovations, it's no surprise that the roots of Kustomized lay in the racks of a used record store.

HHH 1/2 -- Greg Beets


PALACE MUSIC

Arise Therefore (Drag City)


SMOG

Kicking a Couple Around (Drag City)

Reversing field from the Palace Music and Smog of late, Will Oldham and Bill Callahan are mellow again, rekindling flavors from the home-spun broodings that characterized their early efforts as unrecognized bedroom songwriters. Arise Therefore -- a Steve Albini production -- is unlike 1995's Viva Last Blues, as it recounts the heartfelt trueness of Palace in the days of There Is No One What Will Take Care of You and unearths a fresh approach to depressing Midwestern folk music by replacing drummer Jason Lowenstein of Sebadoh with a sometimes-awkward Maya Tone drum machine and employing David Grubbs from Gastr del Sol on piano. Oldham, as usual, kills the listener with his melancholic trappings of twisted solitude and remorse; and like Bob Dylan, continually finds unique ways of presenting his strange and subtle talent. New England's Smog, also long-known to too few and continually doing the killing-you-softly thing, pretty much go two-track (guitar and voice) for this four-song EP (a BBC performance plus three also-Albini-produced tracks) as Callahan somewhat thankfully foregoes the medieval string-quartet jousting of his last two albums in favor of singing depressing tunes about his ex-girlfriend and apparent horse-training skills.

(Arise...) HHHH

(Kicking...) HHH 1/2 -- Taylor Holland


NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL

On Avery Island (Merge)

Dreamy four-track sound, random bursts of fuzz, a loopy devotion to candied hooks... yeah, this vague duo from the unlikely locale of Ruston, La., has been Guided by Voices, and they've also studied up on their Smog, Sebadoh, and Silver Jews (well, ok, I mean Pavement, but that's not alliterative). Neutral Milk Hotel have their own spin on the genre -- one that suspends distortion, weirdness, and melodicism in a giddy wash of xylophone, organ, casio, and horns. When they merely bring the (lo-fi) noise, this Neutral Milk goes bad, but leader Jeff Mangum's introverted ballads are reedy and sweet, while mini-poperas like "Song Against Sex" and "Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone" are jaunty, fully realized collisions of British Invasion pop smarts with teenage Amerindie basement tricks. (Neutral Milk Hotel play the Electric Lounge, Tuesday, June 25.)
HHH 1/2 -- Jason Cohen


STEREOLAB

Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Elektra)

It might seem a curious idea to base a band on a song as chronic as the Velvet's "Sister Ray," but since Stereolab's emergence in 1991, they've reveled in the selfsame edgy drone that Mr. Warhol's pet band used to scare the bejesus out of their listeners two decades earlier. Stereolab, of course, would deny everything. Their bio is full of references to obscure German bands, and vocalist Laetitia Sadler's ridiculously catchy voice often delves into preachy and heady fare. In searching for the mainline, the band has continued to develop their minimalist and mind-numbingly repetitive beat. Lighter and more palatable, Emperor Tomato Ketchup serves up fat buzzing and percolating rhythms under melodies that would make Abba proud, incorporating strings and vibraphones, and rocking in a sneaky fashion. Yet while Stereolab has been prolific in their relatively short career, their end result often sounds a bit thin. "Tomorrow is Already Here" hints at their potential; so do many other fine moments throughout Emperor. There's little doubt this fascinating band has a great record in them. Maybe they shouldn't be in such a hurry to make it.
HHH 1/2 -- Jeff McCord


FASTBALL

Make Your Mama Proud (Hollywood)

Given the amount of ink and hype accorded Magneto/Fastball over the last year, if this record is anything less than another Exile on Main Street, and if its sales aren't in the Dookie range in three months, Miles, Tony, and Joey will be lucky to catch a cold. Well, for chrissakes, give 'em a break. Make Your Mama Proud is an excellent record, full of those hyper pop songs ("Human Torch," "Make Your Mama Proud," "Back Door," "Nothing," "Eater," "Knock it Down") that radio loves to jump on like an inflatable doll. Simply put, any one song from this record (except maybe the Elvis Costello-ish "Are You Ready for the Fallout") blows anything from the Goo Goo Dolls, Refreshments, Super Deluxe, or any other 101X/MTV band so far out of the water it's a completely different ocean. But that's not really the point anymore. The real question is how does Mama... and Fastball, stack up against its real peers -- Stretford, the Orange Mothers, the Shindigs, Jet Jaguar, and the rest of Austin's burgeoning pop scene? Good, very good. The gap, however, is a whole lot narrower.
HHH 1/2 -- Christopher Gray

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