Record Reviews


Jason Falkner Presents Author Unknown (Elektra)

Jason Falkner does not deserve to be stalked by goofy Jellyfish fans for the rest of his career. He may have been the original guitarist in the defunct, pop band deluxe (not to mention the bassist, back-up vocalist, and occasional arranger on their debut, Bellybutton), but after bravely walking away from that dictatorship and then enduring an overly democratic union in the Grays, his musical statement is now completely his own. Author Unknown reflects Falkner's checked Jellyfish past only in its mechanics: It's melodious, harmony-laden, and sumptuously produced. Where Falkner strays from the old party line is in his insistence that his work -- all of which he wrote, played, and produced, mind you -- feels `real.' His songs are not sanitized by their own perfection, nor do they bury emotions under layers of puns and fictions. In fact, Jellyfish fans may find themselves only liking parts of his songs, as Falkner struggles not to make things too familiar. When he wants to seduce the listener, though, as on the wrenching "She Goes to Bed," he is epic. So is much of this album.
(3.5 stars) -- Mindy LaBernz


Glimmer (Roadrunner)

Anything you can do I can do bitter. That's Kevin Salem, the Yo La Tengo deportee and one-time Freedy Johnston sideman. Glimmer, Salem's second solo album, opens with the line "They shoot down angels around here for laughs" and closes with "Time's a bullet that bears our names/each day it gets closer." In-between, there aren't many deviations from that path. Obviously, he's not the poster boy for "Up With People." While lyrically, Salem sounds like a hopeless malcontent, musically he steers far away from the ambient and drone-filled depresso-punk so popular with the cynical and alienated. Instead, Glimmer is loaded with big guitars -- chunky, Seventies-style arena-rock rhythms (think Joe Perry sans high-dollar production) with indie tones and guitar-noodling solos -- furious drumming, and a scratchy, guttural voice that sounds perennially on the verge of falling horribly off key. But it's that flirting with disaster that continually drives Glimmer and gives it an urgency. Salem isn't just upset with the way the world is strung together, he's upset and trying like hell to tell anyone who'll listen before things fall apart even further. Better pay attention.
(3.5 stars) -- Michael Bertin



If Books-on-Tape were as vibrant, imaginative, and juicy as this, then they wouldn't be the most useless consumer item devised since the paper dress. Were this a movie, we might be talking
Oscars: Imagine taking the very work that established Hunter Thompson as the first and last name in weird/wired hilarious literature and doing it as a piece of updated radio drama. Every element of this is perfection, from Waddy Wachtel's note- and nuance-perfect recreation of "Sympathy for the Devil" to the tone and caliber of the performances. Sure, it gets confusing, splitting the Thompson character between Harry Dean Stanton as The Narrator and Jim Jarmusch as Raoul Duke, particularly since neither mumble enough for the full-bore
Thompson effect. But the shrieking, gut-shredding note of despair lurking beneath the amped comedy is accurate, and the supporting cast (featuring heavy hitters like Buck Henry, Joan Cusack, George Segal, and multi-tasking from the likes of Larraine Newman, Harry Shearer, and Dan "Homer Simpson" Castellaneta) is top-notch. The book literally comes to life, and such brilliance warrants at least an extra day's reprieve for the eventual death due that Satanic dungheap, Jimmy Buffett (who, fittingly, plays a goddamned cop).
(4.0 stars) -- Tim Stegall


Hazel (Drag City)

Unlike too many of his Sixties brethren, Mayo Thompson of the Red Krayola continues to re-invent his already-singular vision at every step. From the heady Parable of Arable Land days in Houston through his work with Pere Ubu in the early Eighties to his elusive-but-formidable presence on today's Chicago avant music scene, Thompson has always strayed far to the left of convention, finding hidden beauty in the seemingly incongruent. This time out, he enlists the help of debtors such as Gastr Del Sol guitarist David Grubbs and Minutemen/fIREHOSE drummer George Hurley to herd the Krayola's traditional free-form freak-out atmosphere into the form of actual songs in some cases. Although a lot of Hazel is presented in a cut-and-paste carnival of strange narratives, short bursts of guitar/synthesizer, and bold U-turns galore, songs like "I'm So Blasé" and "Larking" capture the same infinite pop energy Chris Bell once reigned in. Makes sense, actually, since a primary tenet of free-form is to throw boundaries out with the bathwater. Thompson refuses to let little inconveniences like time and space get in his way. As a result, his music retains the same obscure vitality it had 20 years ago.
(3.0 stars) -- Greg Beets


Don't Back Down (Lookout)

Neither chief Queer Joe King nor his scratchy vocal chords and iron rhythm guitar hand can figure out why the entire world's just now waking up to his tripartite obsessions with Brian Wilson, Sixties pop, and the Ramones. Maybe it's because Don't Back Down, this longtime Boston band's best since its first, is also the first to emphasize those qualities over the tuneful thrash that had become their trademark. It's also their first album to feature production gritty and beefy enough to accurately capture the speedy raunch that characterizes the Queers' live attack. Which is fine, as all post-Grow-Up Queers albums have tended to be on the lightweight side. Good, meaty, headbanging pop, the way God and Johnny Ramone both intended it.
(3.5 stars) -- Tim Stegall


Dash Rip Rock's Gold Record (Ichiban)

This record is a total no-brainer and therein lies its brilliance. For nearly a dozen years, this New Orleans-based trio has been pounding out vicious New Orleans rock & roll laced with sophomoric, irresistible humor. Sometimes racist (they make fun of Cajuns!), always sexist (and I always request "Pussywhipped"), and relentlessly wicked, DRR came close to payback this year when "(Let's Go) Smoke Some Pot" climbed up the college radio charts. On the heels of that comes Gold Record, a kind of greatest hits collection -- most of DRR's show stoppers are here, including "Bumfuck, Egypt," "Johnny Ace," "I Saw the Light," the recent "Liquor Store," and, yes, "Pot". Gold Record is an exuberant joyride in a stolen Mustang down that well-traveled highway fueled by Southern horsepower and rock & roll gas, with a juiced-up, three-headed driver named Dash Rip Rock. Nuff said.
(3.0 stars) -- Margaret Moser


Being There (Reprise)

Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy is a lightweight no longer, leaving last year's pleasant if innocuous A.M. in the dust, right behind all those Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo comparisons. Being There is a carefully crafted, sequenced, and executed record, soft in all the right places and rocking just enough to sustain its sometimes ponderous momentum. It's a double album, so there's a heavy degree of self-absorption, but Tweedy has the songs to back it up. He can beat up his inner child as well as Billy Corgan or Kurt Cobain on some numbers, including disc one's "Misunderstood" and "Say You Miss Me," and disc two's "(Was I) In Your Dreams" and "The Lonely 1." But he can get his rocks off, too, as he does on disc one's punchy "Monday," disc two's jaunty "Kingpin," and the finale, "Dreamer in My Dreams," which could have been left off Let It Bleed or Sticky Fingers. But Being There is all about Wilco, a band struggling to forge its own identity from a disparate patchwork of musical sources, searching for the mystical secret of rock & roll. No one would have expected it, but they come a lot closer than most.
(4.0 stars) -- Christopher Gray


Dancehall at Louse Point (Island)

It's no big surprise that this album's subject is love, but it's telling that the only time P.J. Harvey uses that word is when she speaks a line in a song written by somebody else entirely ("Is That All There Is?" by Lieber & Stoller). The whole album is spare that way. The music, written and played by producer John Parish, is neither thick nor fuzzy, as it was on projects with her band. Here, the sound is sometimes tender, sometimes spooky, and always minimal. And that sound is the perfect pillow for the heavy stuff filling Harvey's head. Obviously this is a special project for the poetess, and she's turned it into an opus beginning with pain, filled with struggle, and ending with contentment and commitment to... more pain. Though some tracks are minute-and-a-half instrumentals, most are three-to-five-minute portraits of anger, manipulation, frustration, fulfillment, and pleasure powered as much by Harvey's trademark vocal style as by her choice of words. When she screams "You left me with nothing!" in her breathless, high-pitched way, you welcome the piss in her voice as a contrast to the utter sadness of the song ("City of No Sun"). Then, when she sings her final prayer in "Lost Fun Zone" ("I don't believe that I gotta die someday... please take me one more time") you can feel faith and (I'm not kidding) joy in her voice. And somehow, after listening to this bitter and precise performance art piece about loss, rejuvenation, love, and more loss, you're left ready to live through the cycle... again, and again, and again.
(4.0 stars) -- Melissa Rawlins


Pre-Millenium Tension (Island)

There is simply no one out there like Tricky. Like Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, the London-based programmer/DJ/former Massive Attack backbone is "operating beyond the pale. His methods have become ... unsound." But in all the right ways. Last year's debut, the heavily praised Maxinquaye, pushed the limits of what people outside the underground were only just then starting to call Trip Hop, and this new release pushes the envelope even further -- breaks through, really, into some heavily uncharted sonic territory. At first listen, Pre-Millenium Tension sounds like a spare twig of a release. Tricky has always eschewed the break-beat, drum and bass fireworks of, say, Goldie, in favor of a more atmospheric approach, and the atmosphere here is so dense that it's hard to breath. Tracks like "Makes Me Wanna Die" and the hyper-unsettling "Vent" have been pulled mewling from some horribly dark place in the soul, backed up with thick little gobs of sequencing and raw, almost broken thud, thud, thud drumtracks, making you squirm, not dance. Rarely do we get such an aptly titled CD; singer Martine, who shares vocal duties with Tricky as before, elicits nervous sexual fidgets. Her voice is honey-laced with strychnine, which makes Tricky's... what? Tar heroin and Milk Duds, I'm thinking. Smooth, creamy, and deadly. Delicious poison. Brilliant.
(4.0 stars) -- Marc Savlov



Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out the obvious. Immune to all the talk of a club slump and "Austin Curse," The Dallas Morning News' David Okamoto wisely concluded that Austin's local Prince tribute, Do Me Baby!, "succeeds because it celebrates not just the subject but the sound of a vital music scene." Vital? Of course, because when talent as diverse as Monte Warden, The Fuckemos, and Guy Forsyth all deliver stellar tracks on the same album, there is clearly something more to celebrate than just another passé all-star tribute. Other big, local names like Kris McKay, Spoon, Dah-Veed, and El Flaco fare well here not only because they pull off a neat Prince cover, but because they also sound so much like themselves in the process. And because a scene compilation is nothing without exposing young talent, previously great songs afford Seela & Darwin, Royal Company Scam, The Jubilettes, and Missile Command excellent showcase opportunities. Short of recognizing Prince's amazingly versatile songwriting, Mr. Symbol is far less an issue here than the genre-bending adaptation talents of the local artists. So fuck Prince, Do Me Austin!
(3.5 stars) -- Andy Langer


emancipation (NPG Records)

Perhaps we'll never know just how bad the fictional Spinal Tap record critics referred to as Shit Sandwich was, but it probably resembled emancipation -- a 3-CD coming out that sadly packages a limp and unlistenable middle disc between two bread-and-butter "Prince" sets. Ultimately, the question becomes how much to weigh "prolific" against "filler," and yet, the little man's range is, as always, the story here as he spends discs one and three effortlessly gliding through punny funk, retro-swing, and Funkadelic insanity. Together, it's a two-disc representation of everything you'd expect, and more -- like the Afro-Cuban breakdown of "Damned If I Do" and well-twisted covers of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" and Joan Osborne's "One of Us." And what's so awful about disc two? Try 10 futuristic pseudo-ballads that crawl rather than slink, and pathetically grope rather than perpetually groove. But cut out the fat, and you've still got two above-average volumes of jams or one phenomenal disc, which means emancipation ought to be bought in support of a truly eccentric genius, not because it's a genius package.
(3.0 stars) -- Andy Langer


Composer (Astor Place)

While David Murray's Dark Star (The Music of the Grateful Dead) will anchor many a year-end Top 10 Jazz list, it should be noted that Priority Records off-shoot, Astor Place, actually launched two albums as its opening salvo into the jazz marketplace. Best known for his stint with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in the mid-Sixties (at the group's height), Dallas-born pianist Cedar Walton has been a Class-A accompanist his entire career. Not that he's gone unnoticed; the 62-year-old maestro has long been recognized as a premiere composer, penning postbop standards such as "Mosaic," "Ugetsu," and "Bolivia." Cracking his knuckles now for Astor, Walton does not disappoint those that had the good sense to sign him in the first place. A set of new originals, Composer, is a sweeping statement of confidence and ease. Guesting fellow Texan Roy Hargrove on trumpet, Vincent Herring on alto, Ralph Moore on tenor, and the stellar rhythm section of veteran drummer Victor Lewis and new lion Christian McBride, Walton lets his smooth, polished compositions unfold easily, urging his soloists to flesh out the smart, urbane themes with style and grace. Big, bright riff rainbows like "Happiness" or "Groove Passage" are particularly evocative, as is "Vision," on which Walton sounds every bit like ol' Duke Ellington. And like the master, Walton's Composer deserves your love, attention, and respect. Demands it, actually.
(4.0 stars) -- Raoul Hernandez

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