Record reviews 8/2/96


All This Useless Beauty (Warner Bros)

Like a married couple well into their second decade, Elvis Costello & the Attractions bring with them a lot of baggage. Ruminating from their collective armchairs, they squabble like champions, finish each other's musical sentences, and make, on occasion, superlative music; they still seem an uncanny match. Costello's career has been almost as notable for its failures as its successes. An incessant dabbler, his last five albums alone have featured brass bands, string quartets, Shakespeare, and an entire record of cover songs, all with widely varied results. Yet occasionally, it all still works beautifully. All This Useless Beauty is, happily, one of those occasions. Helmed by Geoff Emerick, the one-time Beatles engineer who worked magic on Imperial Bedroom, Beauty sparkles with dioramas of sexual intrigue, failed relationships, murder, royalty, and wraps with a glorious kiss-off of a production number, "It's Time" (But if you do have to leave me/Who will I have left to hate?). The Attractions dig in with versatile and subtle(!) accompaniment, and song after song grabs hold of you and doesn't let go. This isn't Armed Forces -- Costello's not that angry anymore -- but sometimes the best things happen when it seems you have nothing left to prove.
3 1/2 stars -- Jeff McCord


Walking Wounded (Atlantic)

Saddle up and hit the road, Smashing Pumpkins, because Walking Wounded is the real Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness. Or exquisite sadness, since heartbreak this blissful exists only in song. This record is a gray city of backlit, rainy streets where buses splash huge puddles of rainwater on your best suit, making the rest of you feel like your heart already did. It's lonely, overcast, and seems like there's always a chill wind blowing. Singer Tracey Thorn's languid vocals mix with programmer Ben Watt's techno jungle beats to paint a perfect picture of the outcast heart: ice-cold and Novocaine-numb on the surface, but pulsing with all sorts of random emotions, pleas for reconciliation, and cries for help underneath. It's not a pretty place to be, watching as your heart is ripped out and shattered, and then still having to walk to the bus stop with the depths of your despair on display for all to see. By capturing these moments so precisely, EBTG have crafted the perfect companion to such dark moments. Sweet misery, wash me in the river of sorrow, so that I may one day be clean.
4 stars -- Christopher Gray


Spiritchaser (4AD)

For those odd moments when we want to light candles, turn out the lights, and let the music carry us away, do we really want a different Dead Can Dance record? Can't we be satisfied with Aion, 1990's soulful trip back to Medieval days and surely the first record to pave the way for the upstart Benedictine Monks? Even fans of Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard may think twice before buying a sixth disc, given the familiar liturgical feeling running through each of DCD's six offerings. But this duo's come a long way since their danceable but oh-so-Gothic 1985 debut, and 11 years later, DCD act as ethnomusicologists for the masses. On Spiritchaser, they've brought together polished musicians to produce a sexy, though slightly disjointed, collection of ethereal "world beat" -- including a blending of Algonquin Indian prayers and Haitian chants. And chasing those spirits is Gerrard's haunting, soaring voice. With Spiritchaser, there's finally a sense that Perry & Gerrard have transcended their fixation on ambience without sacrificing one iota of their trademark trance-inducing magic.
3 1/2 stars -- Melissa Rawlins


In Sides (Internal/Full Frequency)

The only real competition The Orb has ever had (or Moby, for that matter) is Orbital, whose third full-length is a lush collection of sonic landscapes that drops the patronizing experimentalism of 1994's Snivilisation in favor of a more pulsing groove that flows in and out of your subconscious like the sinewy little mindbomb that it is. Seven tracks, all lengthy, careen from trippy, near-ambient dub to semi-cohesive strings of blips, beeps, and Roland shockwaves. It's no Orbital 2, sure, but it's a lot closer to the groove than their last outing. What with the dearth of raves in town these days, or at least a dropoff in frequency, here's a chance to drag out the Koss headphones, slip in some truly original funky beats, and trip out without benefit of unreliable ecstasy. One track, "The Girl With the Sun in Her Head," was even recorded using Cyrus, Greenpeace's mobile solar generator. Ever at the forefront of environmental causes, Orbital takes a stand against those annoying fossil fuels this time out. Hard to argue with music like this.
31/2 stars -- Marc Savlov


It Was Written (Columbia)

A lot's going to be made of Nas' sheer verbal flow, but this New Yorker's sophomore release deserves more credit for its own flow -- a firm, track-to-track packaging of narrative tales and graphic nonfiction. And while the wordplay is fairly straight, Nas' knack for imagery and offbeat fantasy is far deeper; from the life-as-a-gun personification of "I Gave You Power" to the Eurythmic influenced "Street Dreams." But even with the East-meets-West dream team of Nas and Dr. Dre ("Nas Is Coming") and the equally undistracting use of production heavies like Mobb Deep's Havoc, DJ Premier, and Trackmasters, Nas' best import is the Fugees' Lauryn Hill, who adds the retro-soul backdrop to a stunning rewrite of Kurtis Blow's "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)." It's the undeniable hit, and even if it is the last song on the album, this song's virtually guaranteed to be heard on each listen, because records this solidly crafted tend to spin straight through.
4 stars -- Andy Langer


Odelay (DGC)

If Beck ever gets bored with this recording gig, he can always hit the sideshow circuit as the Human Sampling Machine. Beck treats the recording studio as a bowl to catch whatever it is he vomits up from the bowels of the pop culture, and as such Odelay is an apothecary's warehouse of subreferences that finally lands somewhere between Jon Spencer and "Jingle Bells." The words "media saturation" obviously don't faze this fair-haired boy in the slightest; Odelay boasts everything from video game noises to this Dali-house moment of half Death Row gangsta funk, half pre-programmed Casio ditty. The nonsequitur factor here is totally off the chart, and it's an absolutely sublime, beautiful thing. Who but Beck would splice KISS-style guitar breaks into an inspired updating of "Dead Flowers" called "Lord Only Knows," or recruit jazz bassist extraordinaire Charlie Haden to lay down a groove on the mellow space ballad "Ramshackle?" Nobody. He's where it's at, and that's why we love him. Forget trying to explain him.
4 stars -- Christopher Gray


Everything I Long For (Outpost)

If Beck and Alice In Chains appreciated Neil Young just a little more, they'd be a louder version of Hayden, a quiet Canadian with big folk songs of frustrated American youth. And "folk" is the key word here -- as in meticulous, breathy, and lyrical. In fact, Hayden' folk rings truest when he's dealing with the mundane, as he searches for his "Skates," life beyond his "Bunkbed," and living/recording at "My Parent's House." But from his back-of-the-throat wails to his front-of-the-mix bass plucking on the droopy rockers "Bad As They Seem," "In September," and the instrumental "Assignment in Space With Rip Foster," it's evident that everything Hayden's got on Everything I Long For is still far more than similarly `lost souls' like Vedder, Weiland, and Corrigan may ever find.
31/2 stars -- Andy Langer



At some point in life, everyone has to undertake a self-reflective, critical reexamination of their Wonder Years, and the minimalist pop combo is a swell medium for such an endeavor. The*Rock*A*Teens' bread and butter is the timeless allure of faraway surf guitar reverberation mixed with the attitude and energy of Midwestern basement party rock. This deceptively easy genre is full of bands that quit learning how to play after not getting booed off the stage at their first gig, but the*Rock*A*Teens have a knack for can't-miss structures and an endless goody bag full of gimmickry. The not-too-cute-to-be-cute lyrics are spewed forth with plaintive adolescent innocence by Christopher Verene, and highlights here include a earnest yet twisted cover of "I'm Your Puppet," and the oh-so dramatics of "Arm in Arm, In the Golden Twilite, We Loitered On..." (which would be a winner on title alone). The album is full of good songs you want to hear again, but they have all the charm of something your next door neighbors recorded in their garage.
3 stars -- Greg Beets


Pleasure Club (Geffen)

If the Walls of Jericho were in the Louisiana Bayou, this blast could knock them right down. The bleat seems to come from -- what is that? -- a harmonica? No, man. That's James Hall's throat: "uh Laaaaah-ve huh-huh/uh Laaaaah-ve huh-huh". It sounds like he's saying "love." It sounds like Lucifer rising. Pleasure Club rips open the gullet of Southern Rock and Southern Goth with a grace not seen since James White or Brown, and doncha know, those crafty marketeers at Geffen are pitching a lone single, "Illingness," as the hit. This brilliant marketing con will lure KGSR-types into believing that Hall is a tame, radio-ready Southern gentleman as easy on the ears and palatable to the kids as the pablum of shake-your-money
-maker poseurs like the Black Crowes or some such shill. Heh-heh heh. Just wait 'til they step inside that deadly Trojan Horse and the grizzled grit of Screaming Jay Hawkins, Janis Joplin, Richard Hell, the Gun Club, and the Divine Horsemen darkens their hearts.
31/2 stars -- Kate X Messer

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