Record Reviews


Dead Cities (Astralworks)

FSOL's constant fiddling with the clickbeep aspects of electronic/ambient dance music has led me to think of them as a bunch of knobs. Their grey, eerie soundscapes call up unbidden images of dead cities, thick with a patina of futurist grime and William Gibson technowaste. Making this sort of densehead music palatable to the masses was never their forte, though. Hardly. This is the mid-to-late Nineties sonic equivalent of The Wall, best listened to at terrifically loud levels, outside, stark naked, in the midst a driving rainstorm, or in the bedroom, candles all aflame, over some very expensive headphones. Either way, the rush FSOL provides is the same as the first time you read Gibson, saw Blade Runner, or spun out on 2222, headlights strobing everything into a luscious, deadly blur.
(3.0 stars) -- Marc Savlov



Twenty years after the fact, Gene Simmons is still fighting the bad fight. Asked by Entertainment Weekly to name the worst thing about '96, the resurgent Kisser wittily denounced "The Macarena and all disco music," reminding us that American rock's self-confidence still hasn't recovered from that moment in the late Seventies when gay black men threatened to take over popular music. So pull on your Underworld concert T, comb out your Chemical Brothers-style muttonchops, dye your hair green just like that guy from the Prodigy, and let's perform a dance celebrating the return of the repressed straightboy to the deejay booth. The music? Why, the party-hearty Hardhop + Trypno v.2 compilation, of course, a handy snapshot of the breakbeat scene that's even pulled so swarthy a representative of rock culture as Noel Gallagher into the orbit of club music. The Brit and U.S. artists included may or may not be straight (only their hairdressers know for sure), but their beats come dressed up in the sort of raucous trappings that still scream fratboy to me. Fatboy Slim all but offers a genre manifesto in the title "Punk to Funk," and the CD opens with some sampled blues harmonica from Hard Knox. You see a pattern here -- Hard Knox, Hardhop? This music is hard dammit -- and manly -- and don't you forget it. And hey, Gene, what kind of real man wears makeup, anyway?
(3.0 stars) -- Jeff Salamon


Spiders (Universal)

Bad form, reviewing an album directly after seeing the band live. In the case of Space, witnessing these cruddy, beaming little Scousers reconstruct their batty, sample-riddled pop debut neither distracts nor sways the critic. If anything, their show provides a spark of clarity in the sonic pandemonium. Foremost, we learn that the reasons for the brake-squealing halt, which Spiders comes to after the first five creepy-cool songs (including U.K. hits "Female of the Species" and "Me and You Versus the World") are two discrete songwriters. Tonight, Tommy, the wee one with the conspiratorial whisper and Vegas finger-point raps, croons and lets his nutter tales of serial killers, big butch queens, Manson, and Huckleberry Hound run amok. The other singer, Jamie, who may or may not still be in the band, and is not touring as he's "not well," was not missed as he's the embarrassingly unironic Killjoy responsible for the non-hits. We could not, however, live without the wizard of the Seven Keyboards, Franny, who provides the faux trumpet, Theremin, string, and Moog sounds that give this otherwise simple, eccentric pop record its cinematic scope.
(3.5 stars) -- Mindy LaBernz


Show World (This Way Up/Mercury)

It took a few listens to Imperial Teen's Seasick before I figured out why I liked it so much: Steve McDonald. Along with his brother Jeff, McDonald has been sticking pink gooey gobs of bubblegum pop to the underside of kiddie punk and KISS rock since 1980 when he was barely 13 and Jeff was just a few inches older. Producing Roddy Bottum's side project then, was perfect. Who better to wad together melody and muscle without losing that delicious nonsensical flavor? Redd Kross' first album in four years isn't nearly that yummy, but it is sweeter than their last, Phaseshifter, and crunchier than the one before that, Third Eye. Things don't really jel 'til the Stones' riffs in "Follow the Leader," song eight, and at 13 tunes, Show World could've used a tighter edit; "Girl God," "Teen Competition," and "Get Out of Myself" might as well be the cardboard gum from your Wacky Packs. Still, the Rocky Horror Picturesque "Secret Life" is perfectly pleasing pop pomp, while "Pretty Please Me," "Kiss the Goat," and the unlisted "Sick Love" (about model narcissism) pack a nice Hawaiian punch. This ain't the Seasick Redd Kross undoubtably has in 'em, but until someone reissues Neurotica, it'll float.
(3.0 stars) -- Raoul Hernandez


The Pilot Knob E.P. (Genius)

Whoa. Seems everyone forgot about this baby as soon as Sixteen Deluxe signed to Warner Bros. In fact, if I hadn't stumbled across it in a used CD bin, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Nevertheless, The Pilot Knob E.P. belongs not with the discards, but rather with two early '97 local releases -- Spoon's Soft Effects EP and Furry Things' hedfones. While it doesn't mark a leap forward for Sixteen Deluxe like the other two EPs do for their respective groups, you'll most certainly want to seek it out if you were razzle-dazzled by 16D's Trance Syndicate debut, Backfeed Magnetbabe. Like that album, this 26-minute prize is all fuzz and circumstance, reverbing loudly with a dizzying giddiness. First and foremost on these counts is the opener, "Happy Song," which kicks like a bazooka full of lead confetti, seguing into one of the band's best songs, "Reactive" -- not the same version as their Propellor 45, but similar. Ray Davies' "Too Much On My Mind" is a strange but welcome surprise, though truly left-field would be a cover of "There He Goes," the EP's melancholy Velvet Underground highpoint and a version to make Patsy Cline smile. (Genius Records, P.O. Box 481052, Los Angeles, CA 90048)
(3.0 stars) -- Raoul Hernandez


Loaded (Rhino)

There's a distinct, almost perverse pleasure to reviewing reissued albums. For the Velvet Underground, who saw more of their material released in the 5-CD box set Peel Slowly and See than during their original five-year lifespan, the appearance of their last album, Loaded, is nothing short of revolutionary. When it first appeared in 1970, Loaded seemed fatuous and lame, a mere afterthought to a once-great band's oeuvre; The VU that recorded Loaded was a fragmented group, with the Warhol association severed, John Cale replaced by Doug Yule, Moe Tucker on maternity leave during the sessions, and Sterling Morrison already leaning toward going back to school. It appeared less the culmination of the group's history than the blueprint for Lou Reed's solo career. It's the passage of time, however, that reveals Loaded to be a tremendously important album. In this 2-CD reissue, the pop gloss of "Who Loves the Sun" and "I Found a Reason" contrast nicely with the nascent "Sweet Jane" and seminal "Rock & Roll," while "Head Held High" and "Train Round the Bend" define the VU's rock perimeters. Six additional tracks are featured on the first CD, some of which were included on Peel Slowly while the second disc, 17 alternate takes, demos, and various other tracks follow Loaded's original order (including a take of "Ocean" with the banished Cale and a pre-Transformer "Satellite of Love"). Frankly, most of the latter under the necessary aegis of "fans only" even if it offers insight to the thread of developing sound. Loaded was uneven, but its brilliance, 27 years after it was first released to little or no attention, is still blindingly apparent.
(4.5 stars) -- Margaret Moser



With the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle," the
basis for the documentary When We Were Kings, Muhammed Ali not only battles George Foreman in Zaire, he also carries with him an impressive caravan of Seventies soul stalwarts -- among them, James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, and the Spinners. The resulting live performances, captured here with equally captivating pre-rap soundbites by Ali, are simply remarkable -- not just musically, but also for how well they mirror the movie's central theme of mutual respect. In the film, Ali learns as much from Africa as Africa learns from Ali. On the soundtrack, that give-and-take is between a boisterous crowd of concert virgins and a roster of established stars otherwise notorious for sleepwalking through performances. So although King and Brown weigh in with the most outwardly urgent tracks, it's the crowd and the performers' own energetic paybacks that make each and every one of these live tracks both raw and inspirational -- a texture only the Fugees' raucous "Rumble in the Jungle" manages to recreate in the set's three new tracks. Even with those added distractions, however, When We Were Kings still flows like Ali in his prime.
(3.5 stars) -- Andy Langer



The soundtrack accompanying a yet-to-be-released documentary on the most important figure in 20th century South African history, Mandela Original Soundtrack bears a telling subtitle: "The Essential Music of South Africa." Plainer language couldn't be written about this album's intent, as it samples 50-some-odd years' worth of this nation's popular tunes, encompassing native big band hits with a harder and sprightlier swing than their Western counterparts, some rhythm & blues bearing similar qualities, as well as contemporary sounds more familiar to Western ears like Hugh Masekela or Johnny Clegg and Savuka. What marks all these tracks is an accent that's unmistakably South African. It's hard to finger it, but there's an elusive lilt, a swing, a certain melodic and rhythmic signature, all of which are instantly identifiable. Mandela Original Soundtrack is important, in that like The Harder They Come soundtrack, it may serve as a handy introduction for American and European ears to an alien-yet-vital musical culture.
(4.0 stars) -- Tim Stegall


The Dark Side (Lordship)

Until now, Austin's MC Overlord has come off as bit of a lightweight -- more Hammer than Public Enemy. But with The Dark Side, a thematic self-help treaty, Overlord has found some muscle, if not musically, at least with his flow. Here, his delivery has been nicely streamlined into a more literate Schooly D rhythm, which works most effectively against the funkier drums and bass of the Brannen Temple/Yogi Mussgrove-driven tracks. In fact, those efforts, like the caustic "Get Used To It," are clearly Overlord's best work to date, firmly establishing the comfort, style, substance, and poignancy he's always hinted at. And while he still doesn't fare well in his subsequent battles with an overwrought pseudo-soul backing, Overlord wordplay typically wins out over the otherwise cliched hooks -- declaring in one of his better runs, "the virus called AIDS is the plague of the era/you still gettin' laid like they made it up to scare ya." Now, perhaps, falling into a musical groove he can live with is just the matter of a little outside production help, which could mean Overlord's just one step away from both finding focus and finding himself a legitimate national contender.
(3.0 stars) -- Andy Langer


The Sun Died (Soul Note)

Like the Chicago tenor this recording compliments, Ellery Eskelin blows fat and blustery all over The Sun Died. Recording an homage to Gene Ammons makes perfect sense for Eskelin. Ammons was a muscular, post-bop blower with a death-lock on the blues, paying no mind as his soul-tinged successes alienated the jazz purists. Eskelin, a fierce, Manhattan-based modernist, slides into Ammon's melodic domain nicely, nailing his slippery tone with distinction, while Marc Ribot's jittery guitar clusters and Mark Wollesen's artillery drums provide unconventional, and phenomenal, backup. Eskelin spent his early years performing with Joey Baron, Ray Anderson, Joe Lovano, Paul Motian, and many others of similar stature, putting in his time with the group Joint Venture before embarking on his own. The Sun Died, his sixth album, zig-zags through Ammon's long career with aplomb and intensity, interspersing classics like "Twistin' the Jug" and "Seed Shack" with obscure treasures; every selection on the album sings. The purists might hate it, but Jug would have stood and applauded.
(4.5 stars) -- Jeff McCord

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