Tragic Animal Stories (Alias)
Remember the Residents' album Hunters? Probably not. It's the soundtrack to the Discovery Channel's television series about predatory creatures. Archers of Loaf singer Eric Bachmann must have known the station's spin-off frequency, the Animal Planet, was coming down the pike when he began Tragic Animal Stories, because with this solo album, he's delivered a largely instrumental effort evoking images of "When Sharks Smell Blood," "Duelling Elephants," "Iditarod Sled Dogs," "Chimps," "Derelict Vultures," and other scenes from the animal kingdom (there are some vocals, but they were added more for their tonal quality than to make sense; hey, is this Barry Black or Frank Black?). This trick is a favorite in classical music, and while the album certainly concentrates on the symphonic, the feel is more of an accompaniment to an old silent movie, full of haunting images that never would have made it onto the screen back then (outside of the film Un Chien Andalou, anyway). Does it succeed? You can almost hear the old projector whirrrring in the background.
(3.0 stars) -- Ken Lieck
Vanishing Point (Reprise)
Dance music will always be a particularly scary strain of the music family. This is particularly true after the late Seventies, when the disco virus killed thousands of music lovers before masking itself in the New Wave movement of the Eighties. Running rampant in the late Nineties as "electronica," the dance stock is stonger than ever, mutating the DNA of whatever it comes in contact with: metal (Prodigy), pop (Radiohead), even U2 (Pop). Bobby Gillespie is prepared. The mastermind behind Primal Scream's dance/dub rawk spectacle, Screamadelica, Gillespie may've been ahead of the curve in 1991 (and behind the times on 1994's bad Rolling Crowes' album Give Out but Don't Give Up), but on Vanishing Point he's dead on the mark. With their Trainspotting theme -- a centerpiece here, all 10 gloriously narcotic minutes of it -- Glasgow's Primal Scream proved that electronica simply boils down to that perfect beat, whether it's provided by Charlie Watts (not) or a drum machine (is). One beat, one song -- a song that lasts all night. Like your favorite club. Here, that no-good-lazy hip-hop programming morphs together the beeps and boops ("Get Duffy"), rattlesnake wah-wahs ("If They Move, Kill 'em"), throbbing menace ("Kowalski"), pretty popsters ("Star"), and jumping jack rockers ("Medication"). Even the retreds ("Stuka," "Out of the Void") are pulled under this swirling, beckoning, flying saucer broth, out of which rises one ringing Keith Richards' riff after another. Emotional Rescue, the Stones' "disco" album, sounds pretty good after all these years. Vanishing Point snuffs it.
(4.0 stars) -- Raoul Hernandez
OK Computer (Capitol)
In Phillip K. Dick's Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, anti-hero Jason Taverner finds an H-bomb the size of a tick implanted just under his skin and a microtransmitting device slipped into his shirt cuff to track movements and deter his escape. Similarly, I have this recurring dream: I scratch and dig at the back of my hand until giant ants crawl out of my skin. OK Computer is probably not about either of these things, but it does seem quite at home with alienation and with the tortured disquiet of living inside one's own flesh. Alienation is a favored theme of artists, and as we careen into hot-wired Internet oblivion, it's no wonder the theme gets revisited in new evolutionary and technologically twisted ways. Is this what OK Computer is about? Fuck if I know. For all I know, it's this generation's The Wall (were Pink Floyd's odyssey not the completely bloated pile of bile it is -- Wizard of Oz connection notwithstanding). Actually, OK Computer has enough in common with "Burning Airlines" Eno, "Major Tom" Bowie, and early Pere Ubu and Miracle Legion to get conjecture rolling. Throughout their career, Radiohead have proven quite adroit at living within their skin, despite how crammed it is with so many musical referents. This new album is proof that while the referents are still there ("No Surprises" is not surprising in its liberal lift of the VU's "Sunday Morning"...), the band continues to mature. OK Computer might be a metaphor for humans laid bare and vulnerable on the cold edge of technology's sacrificial altar, or, goddamn, it may just be the simple yowl of someone having a bad day. Either way, it's as close a concept record comes to bloody perfect.
(4.5 stars) -- Kate X Messer
KEROUAC: KICKS JOY DARKNESS
This grab bag of 25 pop culture luminaries reading Jack Kerouac's letters, passages, and "pomes" plays out with varying degrees of success. You have to dig the ambition it took to corral sources as disparate as Michael Stipe, Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (backed by Helium, no less) into one eclectic package. Not surprisingly, the best cuts tend to come from those who have more experience in the nuances of recitation. Allen Ginsberg's predictably captivating reading of "The Brooklyn Bridge Blues (Choruses 1-9)" and William Burroughs' twangy collaboration with Tomandandy on "Old Western Movies" are both superlatives. Lydia Lunch's AM radio steaminess also works wonders for "Bowery Blues." Matt Dillon's deep, affected tone is perfect for "Mexican Loneliness," and "Mexican Rooftop" exudes hallucinatory bliss under Rob Buck and Danny Chauvin's watch. On the down side, Juliana Hatfield uses "Silly Goofball Pomes" to prove she can be just as cloyingly annoying in spoken word as she is so often in song, while Richard Lewis "oohs" and "ahhs" his way through "American Trilogy of Love: Dean, Brando, Presley" in a manner that makes his stand-up routine seem positively balanced by comparison. Despite the inherent unevenness of such a project, Kicks Joy Darkness is still a compelling artifact of the malleability and far-reaching nature of Kerouac's legacy.
(3.0 stars) -- Greg Beets
West (Warner Bros.)
Maybe some people just shouldn't make albums. And there's a distinction here: They're cleared to make music and play it for people, they just probably shouldn't record it. Mark Eitzel is one of these people. Here's why: It's just so depressing that 50 consecutive minutes of it is almost rude. If you've ever seen Eitzel live, you know that between all the somber sledgehammer melodrama he can be somewhat of a cut-up. As a listener, that helps, because it returns you to an emotional equilibrium before you get all downtrodden again. On disc, those brief little respites don't exist. West, however, does have a bit of an advantage over the former American Music Club frontman's previous effort, 60 Watt Silver Lining; and that's Pete Buck. The R.E.M. guitarist produced the record and manages to lighten things up a bit, even giving it some occasional bounce. Buck almost turns "Move Myself Ahead" and "In Your Life" into full-fledged pop songs, leaving only 10 other heavy tunes to trudge through. That's okay, you just have to learn to break them up. Listen to the misfortunate stories on "Stunned and Frozen" then maybe catch Seinfeld. Go back and take in the vibes-laden "Helium," then read some Kinky Friedman. Get creative like that and West becomes a much easier record to take.
(2.0 stars) -- Michael Bertin
The Will To Live (Virgin)
After a pair of strong, but mostly acoustic, albums, Ben Harper has apparently realized that sometimes it takes an electric guitar to really make a point. For starters, the bouncy feedback of "Faded," The Will to Live's opener, is as sure-fired an attention-grabber as Harper has presented us with yet. Plain ol' Hendrix revisionism? Pearl Jam with soul? Lenny Kravitz's best day? It's something like that, but more; it's a simple but vigorous rage against ignorance and intolerance. The songs have remained the same, only the message is louder. And in that respect, Harper's voice is still providing the majority of this album's power, sensitivity, and anger. The electric makeover is just as effective in its eclectic contrasts, from the jittery porch blooze of "Homeless Child" and the wailing ragga of "Jah Work" to the sultry balladry of "Roses From My Friends" and the proto-funk of "Mama's Trippin'." That these tracks make so much sense side-by-side may just be The Will to Live's creative legacy, in that Harper's found his most consistent, cohesive, and convincing set not merely on volume alone, but from a batch of smart and diverse songs.
(3.5 stars) -- Andy Langer
Love's Been Rough on Me (Private Music)
Even if you don't know about Etta James -- didn't read her no-holds-barred biography, remember about Miss Peaches, know about her years as one of Chess Records' premiere screamers -- Love's Been Rough on Me could still be one of the best places to start. And since blues legends are dying off at a scary rate, it's a pleasure to hear something this contemporary yet classic. In reviewing a recent Chess collection, I've had the good fortune to listen to many of James' past recordings, and it's reminded me just why we're drawn to the comfort of familiar surroundings. James has been around so long (just think of the opening lines of "At Last"), she could probably do this stuff in her sleep, but sleepwalking is not something conjured by these modern R&B gems that glitter in the dim smoky light of a nightclub, yet shine with all their jewel-toned intensity. You won't find any rockers here -- "I Can Give You Everything" comes closest -- but each tune is crafted to bring out the best in James; witness the solid, steady sway of "The Rock," "Don't Touch Me," and "Cry Like a Rainy Day," and her scorching version of "I've Been Loving You Too Long.""Have mercy, baby... love's been rough on me," she sings on the album's title cut. Love may be rough, but have mercy on us, Etta, and make us another album like this one real quick.
(4.0 stars) -- Margaret Moser
Rumba Argelina (Nonesuch)
With the rise of "world" music, all sorts of cross-pollination is taking place, often leading to wonderful results, such as the new music of John Zorn and Dave Douglas. Unfortunately Radio Tarifa leaves plenty to be desired. Formed by three Madrid musicians, the group is augmented by various other instrumentalists, depending on the piece performed. The main elements in their mix are Spanish and Arabic forms, with guitar, flute, crumhorn, saxophones, oud, bass, accordion, and various percussion instruments among those employed. Most tracks have romantic lyrics sung by Benjamin Escoriza. Mixing Arabic and Spanish styles is no big deal; there's been a strong Arabic element in Spanish music for centuries. The leader of Radio Tarifa, Fain Sanchez, also has reactionary motives. He claims "if you go back in time... somewhere across the Mediterranean, there you would find exactly [our] type of melody and arrangement. What we are doing is to reclaim a very ancient Mediterranean tradition, from the Egyptians and especially from the ancient Greeks, basically using what are known as Greek and Roman `modes.'" However, modal music of various kinds has continued to be performed throughout the world without a break from the ancient to modern eras. Sanchez hasn't dug up something that's been dormant. The vocal and instrumental work isn't impressive either. So, what you have here is pleasant, mildly novel stuff, the kind you hear on your new age radio station. Clichés derived from several sources and put together are not necessarily an improvement on clichés drawn from a single source.
(2.0 stars) -- Harvey Pekar